Thursday, December 13, 2007

Television Review: Dexter

There was a bit of controversy when this concept was launched: a series told - mostly - from the point of a serial killer. To make him palatable to a general audience, he of course adheres to a sort of moral code, only killing 'bad guys'. But it is clear that Dexter is not a well person, in the grip of urges he can't repress, which he has just managed to channel into something semi-defensible. Dexter narrates his thoughts and motivations, though it is not clear to whom. Maybe someday the finale will reveal the answer to that question. Without this device the series would be lost though, as Dexter cannot share his real self with anyone around him: his colleagues at the Miami police - yes, he works in law enforcement - his sister or his girlfriend. He only has the viewers to really talk to and he does this with irony and detachment. I am not sure if the books that spawned him - three so far - are written in the same tone. I also don't know how similar the plots are to the series, as I haven't read them (yet). A friend informed me that they are an 'okay' read and give more insight into the main character.
In any case, the writers for the series manage to keep Dexter on the knife-edge between sympathetic and psychopathic. The internal struggle between his humane side and his monstrous side is what drives the narrative. He tries to build a normal life with his girlfriend and her kids, all the while conscious that they would run in terror if they knew who he really was. The possibility that he will be caught and exposed is ever-present. In the two seasons so far, his past has been uncovered, serving as an explanation - in part - for him being the man he is. Season one was driven by the appearance of a mysterious rival serial killer with a disturbing connection to Dexter, in the second one the discovery of a couple of Dexter's victims set the law hot on his trail. I will be curious to see where the next season goes and will be holding my breath, hoping they won't screw it up or milk the formula for too long. As it stands, Dexter is a very tense, dark series with a sly sense of humour that doesn't have an equal on television at the moment. If you don't mind some blood, gore and moral queasiness, check it out.

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Who is Michael Clayton? Several characters in the movie are wondering about that, not least of all Michael Clayton himself. What he is, job description-wise in any case, is a 'fixer'. As a cross between an investigator and a lawyer, he tries to find information and make arrangements to help the cliënts of the law firm he works for. He is called in to control the situation when a colleague and friend of his goes off on a manic-depressive bender. The man has information that makes him a liability: proof that a chemical used on crops causes cancer. The company that makes the chemical is willing to go a long way to make sure the information doesn't leak out, leading to legal wrangling and - ultimately - murder.
The movie was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh of Erin Brockovich fame ('woman leads claim against major company and makes them pay') and this story feels like a collision of that movie with a John Grisham legal thriller. It's very low-key and internal however, with lots of close-ups of George Clooney as we know and love him: broody or looking like a kicked puppy. What makes Clayton so unique and great at his job is something that eluded me, as it is said more than it is shown. The real meat of the story is not in the conspiracy and murder but in the mind of Clayton, who is broke, doing an unfulfilling job and generally wondering what his life is all about. His world seems grey and corporate. By the end, there is a resolution and a shift seems to be occurring in the mind of Clayton, but it is all so understated that it is hard to define what his emotional arc was. There are also some strands to the story that don't really seem to matter, mostly to do with Clayton's family. The movie keeps you interested - if not riveted - but ultimately won't stick in your memory for too long.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

Gosh, does Beowulf ever love the sound of his own name. If a drinking game was based on this movie - a sip for every time the name is mentioned - it would end in first aid with a case of alcohol poisoning. Beowulf's crew could probably handle it though, as they are big on booze and women. They respond to a summons by Danish King Hrothgar who is plagued by a monster called Grendel and is offering gold as an incentive to whoever can rid him of it. This monster makes an impressive appearance early in the movie. Looking like an oversized Gollum after an acid shower, he shows up at the town hall during festivities, rips people apart and generally raises heck. He also speaks in an old Danish /Germanic (?) tongue, a nice nod to the origin of the tale. The rest - of course - speak current day English. A certain newcomer named 'Jesus' is mentioned a couple of times, as an alternative to the Nordic gods, nicely anchoring events in history.
At one point, we hear Beowulf telling of his own accomplishments, as we see a slightly different version of events and his crew is commenting on how the story is getting inflated with each telling. I am not sure if there are also different versions of the Beowulf legend - there have been previous films in any case - but director Robert Zemeckis is no slouch at spinning a yarn and tells his one with style. The movie feels adult, with just enough action scenes and small humorous touches too keep it from getting too dour.
The same motion-capture technique is used here that he used for the sweet and fluffy The Polar Express: actors are filmed first and then animated over by computer. Some of these actors are like photocopies of their real counterpart. Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie look like the real deal. Others, like Crispin Glover as Grendel, are unrecognisable. The virtual cinematography is beautiful, as is the animation, though they still haven't quite got the eyes right. The faces are very detailed and expressive, but there is something vacant about the characters sometimes. And smooth skin seems hard to reproduce without calling plastic to mind.
Speaking of skin, there is an interesting scene where Beowulf decides it would only be fair to fight Grendel hand-to-hand without the aid of weapons. And in the nude, for reasons that I must have missed. So we get a big, bloody fight in the town hall - containing a really gross decapitation by mouth - during which Beowulf is running and jumping around in the nude while mayhem rules around him. Miraculously, the camera angles and diverse objects keep covering up his genitals, much the same as in a scene from Austin Powers. It did draw some giggles from the showing I was at and was a little distracting. But even though there is no full frontal, the women and gay men in the audience will at least enjoy a digital butt and body well worth drooling at. I am not sure which ancient Danish gym Beowulf went to, but I want to sign up there!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Television Review: Ugly Betty

Thanks to a bout of flue I recently watched all of the first season of Ugly Betty as a marathon. This is the USA version of a concept that has been travelling the globe in many local forms. It was called 'Lotte' in the Netherlands and originally started out as 'Yo soy Betty, la Fea' (I am Betty, the Ugly One), a Columbian 'telenovella'. And my God, it is gay! By which I mean good gay, not derogatory teen speak gay. The central plot concerns an ugly duckling who gets a job at a fashion magazine called 'Mode'. Well, actually America Ferrara (the actress) looks pretty cute without her Betty gear, but for the series she has been saddled with braces, glasses, big eyebrows, layers of unwieldy hair and an unflattering wardrobe. One thing that is never quite explained is how someone who is such a major fan of Mode magazine (as she says in the first episode) can have such a bad fashion sense. It also seems unlikely that she wouldn't ask for a make-over by her friend - the in-house 'seamstress' at Mode - but it would go against the central theme of the series: stay true to yourself.
She is hired for the wrong reasons but wins her boss over with her honesty and pureness of heart. Yes, really. Soon she is swept up in drama on several fronts; the ones within her own family (Suarez) and the ones within the magazine and - by extension - the Mead family, who owns the magazine. While the usual soap-opera scheming goes on around her, with lies, betrayals and regrets flying around and hurting people who should know better, she faces the temptation to join in the fray, and sometimes has to, but gets busy most of the time with damage-control. Even the people who don't like her can't help but secretly admiring her a bit. She always ends up doing the right and moral thing.
Ugly Betty is a classy, intricately designed production. Though the moral involves style frequently clashing with substance, there is no lack of the former. The series makes fun of its own lowly telenovella roots by showing snippets of an amazingly cheesy television soap that the Suarez family likes to watch. Honestly though, the happenings in the 'real' series are often just as farfetched. The characters are as colourful as the sets, thankfully, and are played to the hilt by a very capable cast. Rebecca Romijn turns out to make a fantastic transsexual and Vanessa Williams can play a great evil, scheming bitch (as we knew she could). Special mention for the delightfully flaming Michael Urie as Marc, who shines as both the sardonic flunky of the Williams character and as BBFF (Bitchy Best Friends Forever) with ditzy blonde Amanda (Becki Newton). I might as well add Betty's young nephew to the list (played by Mark Indelicato) who seems to be a budding gay teen, and is accepted without question by his family. Pretty much all the characters are memorable and given enough room to be sympathetic - even the evil ones - as well as multi-layered.
I just started watching the second season and my only fear is that the series won't be able to top itself. If it starts inflating the drama and the characters to out-do the first season, it might end up só much over the top that the audience will stop relating to it. Added to that, some of the scheming is starting to feel repetitive already, as is the drama within the Mead family. And Betty now either needs to finally hook up with that accountant of her dreams or move on, it has been dragged out for long enough.
Still, any show that has this much charm to spare and this many great one-liners will have me clinging on for as long as possible. As Betty would no doubt tell us: hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Movie Review: Stardust

A boy promises his undeserving sweetheart a piece from a fallen star and crosses a wall to find it, landing himself in a fantasy land with flying pirates, evil witches and a dying monarch. When the fallen star turns out to be a girl, hormonal imbalances ensue.
The friend I was with at the theatre to watch this, tried to gnaw his way out through the back of his seat. I had no intention of leaving, however, so he bravely suffered until the end credits. He hated the movie, I sort of liked it. When The Brothers Grimm came out a while ago, it was a sympathetic failure and Stardust reminded me of it, even if this movie is a little less rambling. Both had big budgets, big names, big sets, big special effects, big prosthetics and a flailing 'fantastic' script. Stardust is based on a book by Neil Gaiman, a well-known writer of comics, books and the occasional movie. He loves spinning tales in the realms of folklore, myth and fable. I read the book and though I love his work on the Sandman comics, I must say it didn't take long for the details of this story to evaporate from my memory. I think the movie didn't stray too far from the source, but I am not sure if Gaiman or the screenwriters are to blame for the elements that don't work.
There are fairytale aspects to Stardust that require a lot of suspension of disbelief and the audience needs to be charmed to go along with that. How much you enjoy the movie depends a lot on how much you consciously 'give in' to it. Since I wanted to like Stardust, I sort of did. Some leaps of imagination were too big for me to make though and the main one is a biggie: a fallen star turns out to be human. Her former existence as a heavenly body is never quite explained, and the shock at her change into a human isn't really explored. Other aspects of the fantasy world don't feel thought-out either, the pieces don't hang together well and don't form a cohesive, believable (within the movie) world. The flowery and somewhat flat dialogue doesn't help much with getting you involved; the screenwriter from The Princess Bride should have been hired for a polish. Add to that a somewhat limp main character who has only marginal chemistry with the leading lady - a.k.a. the star - and I can see how people could easily resist the mild charms it does have and only notice the plot holes and pantomime acting. But if you are in a good mood and enjoy a sweet bit of overblown Hollywood nonsense, you could do a lot worse. And a moment of praise for Robert De Niro who pulls off a crossdressing gay pirate with flair. When he is finally outed to his rugged crew - the macho image he was nurturing shattered - their reaction is both hilarious and sweet. Let's hope Disney will recruit them for Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Television Review: Prison Break

*contains mild spoilers*

After two seasons, my love affair with Prison Break is over. What went wrong? *Wavy flashback effect* I came on board to this series rather late. I saw season one after it had already aired, in a couple of big chunks. The concept sounded interesting: Michael Scofield gets himself thrown into prison, with an elaborate plan to break out his soon to-be-executed brother. Now, there are plenty of movies about people breaking out of prison - The Great Escape with Steve McQueen perhaps being the most famous one - but spreading such a plan out over 22 episodes was a bit risky, as the actual break would obviously not happen until the end of the season and interest could easily be lost. However, the series was well-shot, well-produced and capably stringed the viewer along from one suspenseful setback in the plan to the next, slowly unveiling said plan, as tattooed (!) in code on Michael's body... Believable it was not even remotely, but though the main story progressed slowly, it successfully reeled you in with a sense of urgency that never let up.
Season two was about the now-escaped group of prisoners and a big government conspiracy. I was afraid that the concept would be stretched beyond breaking point and in regards to the conspiracy, it almost was. The same sense of urgency saved it, however. They did step wrong in the first episode by carelessly tossing aside a main character from season one and then not following through on the emotional impact that it should have had on the rest of the cast. It was the first sign that the writers had more feel for tension than for tracking the audience's emotional investment. By reshooting about a third of the last episode, these two seasons could have been satisfyingly wrapped up with a fairly happy ending. But no...
The creative minds behind the series said they had always planned for three seasons. But if the viewing figures hold up, I have no doubt they will find sudden inspiration for a fourth one as well. In the third season, Michael has to break out of a prison again, only this time not a tightly organised American one, but a Colombian survival-of-the-fittest nightmare ruled by a druglord. The way Michael gets put in there is very contrived, as is the way a surprising amount of cast-members end up in that same prison. The writers seem to be desperately trying to sledgehammer the old cast into this new-but-not-quite scenario. Adding insult to injury, they ditch the one cast-member who was necessary to give Michael the happy ending he - and the audience - had deserved in spades by now. With little promise of an emotionally satisfying pay-off and re-treading the same ground with a not big enough twist, I don't see how the show will recuperate. The 'one step forward, two steps back' approach irritates now that there seems nowhere worthwhile to get to.
As my boyfriend is still hooked on this series, I will probably have to stick around and watch it for a while longer. But I hope that this sentence and this series will soon come to a long overdue end.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Let's Get Trivial!

I love learning new facts about the world around me, but I still have to be tricked a little bit into sitting down and educating myself. I need my information to come with a great, big side order of entertainment. Thankfully, there are plenty of sources catering to my need for infotainment. One of the best books I burrowed through on a search for enlightenment was A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. The former travel writer (he has recently been branching out) lays bare the history of the planet and the science that gave us our knowledge about it. Me being a language guy more than a science dude, it was tough going for bits of it when the going got a little too abstract. On the whole, however, Bryson is great at simplifying complex concepts for common folk (like me) and he garnishes the book with plenty of entertaining anecdotes. You come away thinking that: a. some scientists were seriously weird and b. the world is a wondrous place with many mysteries yet to be uncovered. Oh, and did you know a comet could hit the planet at any time without us having noticed its approach? Exciting, isn't it?
The Mental Floss team publishes a bimonthly magazine for 'knowledge junkies' and has also crafted some books, all with the following concept: bits of trivia - be they historical, scientific or cultural - creatively combined and brought to boil with a sense of humour. I am a great fan of this recipe that allows you to dip in and get a quick fix even when on the run. They also have a site that offers you some perfectly free factoids, though beware - the sneaky bastards are trying to get you hooked.
If you want to test your newly acquired knowledge, there is an online quiz to do that with: Jellyvision's You Don't Know Jack. The questions are oddly twisted, which makes hearing them and the possible multiple-choice answers as satisfying as actually getting them right. Beware though: if you fail to do so, the snarky host will mock you.

Now get out there kids and remember: learning is fun, fun, FUN!

Ps: if you have kids, you might want to introduce them to the nicely illustrated Horrible Histories series, which teaches history in an infotaining way. Just so they know.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Television Review: Eureka

Eureka has just been renewed for a third season by the SciFi Channel. The series once badly titled 'A Town Called Eureka' seems to be hitting its stride. The set-up: a U.S. Marshal (Colin Ferguson) gets stranded with his 'delinquent' daughter in a town with an unusual amount of geniuses. All these people are left to roam free, invent things, blow stuff up and generally mess with reality and the laws of physics. There is also a government-run research company called Global Dynamics guiding these oddballs, which might have semi-nefarious purposes. By the end of the pilot, the Marshal becomes Eureka's Sheriff and starts making this place his home.
I wasn't sure about the series on the basis of that first episode. The tone seemed off, some light and humorous aspects clashing with dark X-filesesque undertones. And the characters didn't really feel connected to each other. They fixed this somewhat in the rest of the series by ditching Greg Germann ('Fish' from Ally McBeal) and replacing him with the dashing Ed Quinn as the boss of Global Dynamics. In doing this, they also set up a classic Romantic Triangle at the heart of the series: the sheriff falls for his government liaison, who is married to (but separated from) her new boss (Quinn).
Eureka tries too hard to be cute and goofy sometimes, channelling Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks and those 'special' humorous episodes of the X-Files. But the cast meshes very well after a few episodes, great one-liners fly by with charming regularity and it doesn't make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Sometimes, it even goes too far in this aspect: situations that should be fraught with tension don't actually get tense because the characters don't seem too anxious about yet another calamity threatening the town and the world. And when someone dies, though we are happily shown a charred or mangled (part of) a corpse, there isn't much dwelling on the person who just died even though this is supposed to be a small town where most people know each other. This insistence on keeping things light can throw you out of the show sometimes: if the artificial intelligence in your high tech house went haywire, took you hostage and killed someone, would you keep living there unless the thing was rebuilt from the ground up? Also, the amazingly blue-eyed Sheriff is very funny and likeable, but comes off as a bit - well - bumbling, being surrounded by all these brainiacs. The reason he often ends up saving the day is generally because the scriptwriters let him. It is hard to imagine him as the hardcore U.S. Marshal he was supposed to be, before he came to Eureka.
But regardless of the occasional misguided storyline (no more May-December sexy romances for Max Headroom please) or sappy plot resolutions, this town is well worth tuning into.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dead Woman's Perfume

Objet Trouvé

I found this intriguing 'classified' at the board in my local supermarket. The only thing I added is the highlighting and I blurred the phonenumber.
So: somebody flogging perfume he was supposed to deliver to an old woman who was dead when he got there? Would make for a charming mother's day present, he says. Not sure why he chose to share the perfume's sordid past with us. Bit of a downer. Alas, it is in Dutch - as you might have noticed - so only funny for those of that persuasion.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Novelty Music

Novelty songs are often seen as the easiest and - therefore - lowest form of humour (along with puns). But done well, the songs can be brought up to great levels of memorable wackiness, to be giggled at again and again on your mp3-player. I was already a fan of some of Monty Python's classics (like 'I'm a lumberjack (and I'm okay)') and to a bigger extent of the works of Tom Lehrer. He is lesser known in Europe; a Jewish lapsed teacher, turned brainiac comedy performer. His career in music was brief, but his music - often fairly dark and cynical - lives on, and though some are dated because they deal with politics of his prime (late fifties, early sixties) others like 'Poisoning pigeons in the park' and the table of elements 'set to a possibly recognisable tune' still live on in our hearts and on my harddrive. He can be seen and heard on YouTube.
Recently I ran into two current musical comedy performers I wanted to share. Both I heard in a Comedy Central special. Their speciality is songs that are subversive and rude. Rich Hall (as his Otis Lee Crenshaw persona) has songs about subjects like making love to a bag lady and the hilarious anti-chivalry anthem: 'Do what you want to the girl, just don't hurt me'. Stephen Lynch has sensitive songs about boozing whoring, dating hermaphrodites and turning gay after a drink or two.
Have a look at any or all of these guys. They will make you smile and might just make you titter like a little girl. But I might be projecting.

If you don't mind all this x-rated humor, also listen to: Pussy Tourette's 'I think he's gay' and The Wet Spots 'Do you take it'. For less crudeness listen to Dr. Demento's collections and maybe "Weird" Al Yankovic if really desperate.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Movie Reviews: Getting Animated

I am not sure what it is about animated films that gets me involved in the story so easily. Even corny sentiment easily chokes me up in this form. Maybe the suspension of disbelief makes it easier to get lost in the narrative or maybe it's just the simple stories and often childlike cast with their usually big, teary eyes (as parodied by the cat in Shrek 2). But I do have to admit that I like the medium especially for the capacity for silliness. The Emperor's New Groove with its many jokes that broke the third wall is one of my favourites and is still sometimes ripped off for a punchline in my daily conversation. ('Noooo touchee!') Recently I saw a couple of animated movies within a week, though apart from the drawn aspect, most had little to nothing in common.

Les Triplettes de Belleville is an odd, wildy charming French flick, that's bursting with character. A grandmother raises her grandchild to be a cyclist in the Tour the France, and finds herself battling the French mob when they kidnap him for nefarious purposes. Luckily she runs into musical triplets, who help her kick their ass and perform some funky music as they do so. There is almost no dialogue, but what there is and the general mood is very French. The mob has giant bottles of wine on the building that is their headquarters, and their cars sport the phrase: In Vino Veritas.
The look is one of exaggeration and extremes: faces are distorted and distinctive - hooked noses, faces with wrinkles that swallow up everything else, huge teeth and ears and so on, boats tower ridiculously above waterlevel, seemingly about to keel over at any moment and buildings stand at dubious angles while trains pass by that could be touched from the windows. Logic is cheerfully thrown to the wind, which such charm and reckless abandon that you will happily go along with it: at one point grandma and her dog manage to wither storms while crossing the Atlantic - or so it appears - on a waterbike (!) in pursuit of one of those bizarre boats. You want this old lady to win and you don't care that the universe has to be distorted in her favour to make it possible. The triplettes are slightly more dubious heroines, with a strange predilection for using explosives to blow up frogs - for food - and gangsters - for a quick getaway.

By comparison, the morality tale that is A Bug's Life seems very tame and family-friendly. An ant who is an outcast sets off to save his colony from disaster and blunders his way to success and acceptance. Rescue comes in the way of a travelling circus consisting of various insects, most notably a ladybug who is a guy and a posh walking stick voiced by David Hyde Pierce from Frasier. I don't really have much interesting to say about it except that it manages to entertain in the way most inoffensive Disney movies do. It is not one of the ones that has an added level for adults that makes it more than kiddie fare, but the computer animation and the characters are pretty good. As it turns out, from the perspective of an insect, a bird can really be scary. On the other hand, this nemesis also makes you ponder how selectively the intellect has been distributed in the movie. The bird is as brainless as the ones we see every day, but all insects have secretly been bypassing them on the evolutionary ladder, or so A Bug's Life wants us to believe.

Princess Mononoke comes from the same director who would bring us Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle in later years and brought us some great movies before that too (like My Neighbour Totoro). Pretty much all of his movies are worth watching, even if Howl's rambles on a bit and isn't all that coherent. He has a way of setting the mood and taking the time to tell a story. His worlds are spooky and magical while somehow feeling real and lived-in. Usually there are some little creatures involved that ride the line between cute and creepy, like the little tree-spirits in this movie. And a recurring theme is that of the spirits of nature coming in conflict with the threat of pollution caused by man. In this movie especially that theme is very explicit. The Gods of the Forrest fight against humans who are trying to use the land for financial gain and don't care about the damage they do to it. The Princess of the title has been raised by one of these gods (a big toothy Wolf) and comes into conflict with humankind and with Prince Ashitaka in particular.
I originally saw this with subtitles, which was good because the original voice performances are better than in the dub (by various big Hollywood names) and the mouths in the dub don't even remotely line up with the words. But the bad thing was that some of the details were lost on me. It seemed a lot more coherent and involving second time around. There is plenty of action, and there are some gross-out scenes involving blood and goo, also a staple of director Hayao Miyazaki.

Steamboy too belongs in the Manga section, but though I really wanted to like it, it was a bit disappointing. The computer-aided animation is spectacular, as is the action, but the story did just not make any sense. It is set in an alternate reality past, seemingly inspired by Jules Verne, where amazing machines are running on steam. A globe capable of storing near infinite steam power gets chased after for most of the movie, which ends with a lot of random destruction, the no doubt many casualties of which are not at all addressed. One of those films that entertain while you watch, as pleasantly noisy nonsense, but doesn't really stick in the mind.

Now the one that did very much stick in the mind: Grave of the Fireflies. It tells a fairly simple story beautifully, slowly breaking your heart as it does. Since the movie opens with the scene I am about to mention, I am not spoiling anything by saying that it does not have a happy ending: the death of Seita, from hunger during the Second World War in Japan. Very soon the movie flashes back to a moment just before his town got bombed. We get just a glimpse of a happy childhood before tragedy strikes. His mother succumbs to burn wounds from one of the bombings, his father is at sea as part of the navy and can't be reached. He tries to take care of his little sister Setsuko, a sweet and bubbly girl, while both fight the trauma of losing their mother. A bitchy aunt ends up chasing them out of the house after food becomes in short supply and she realises there is nobody to take them off her hands. The brother and sister try to survive on their own, but as was shown from the start, they fail. Despite being Manga characters, with somewhat cartoony faces, they are painted so realistically through their actions - little, very human details throughout - that you will by the end be crying for them, two innocents ground up in a war that fails to take any notice of their tragedy. I don't think I ever saw a movie with a stronger anti-war message; not by preaching, just by showing. It hurts to watch, but should be watched. There are some beautiful, poetic scenes full of life in here, which only make the contrast to the horror stronger.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Contains only mild spoilers

I had to race through this book to avoid one of my colleagues from the bookstore blurting out a spoiler before I could get to the end. I succeeded, and what a ride it was. Of course, I will not be spoiling the end for anybody here either, trying to balance being vague and yet specific.
It has been a long time since I got sucked into a story this much. Putting down the final volume in the Potter saga, I felt sad that it was over and that I had to leave that magical world. I think the secret to the series is the simple beauty of the main concept: the promise of a world of magic hiding just out of sight within our real one. In the first book, the readers - mostly school-going kids - are introduced to that world through the eyes of students who are also learning about it. In later books, the way this world works is fleshed out further, its politics, social structure and history, making it fun and believable, because you want to believe. As a pre-teen, I wanted desperately to be a Jedi and save the universe with a lightsaber. Rowling now has created a world I - and many with me - would love to live in and do some magic, especially in the fantastic place that is Hogwarts. I am not surprised she has already started considering a spin-off based in this world. I imagine there are still many stories to be told within this framework, even though she will no doubt catch flack for it. Like the readers, she just doesn't want to leave this fictional place, even if we have genuinely said goodbye to Harry.
However, it was time for this story to end and I was glad to see that the ending matched my expectations. It had been foretold since the beginning that the world wasn't big enough for both Voldemort and Harry, and it was about time that one - or both - of them vacated the premises. Actually, it is the foretelling that is the most troubling when it comes to the narrative. Certain people who shall remain nameless for reasons of suspense did an awful good job of predicting the future without actually knowing much for certain about it. Planning, coincidence and luck don't quite gel together naturally as the plot flows along. As in earlier books, the story lacks a strong forward drive in places, seemingly treading water, but the speedy writing style and emotional involvement easily carry you through.
Further nit-picks: it is a bit odd that all the teenage love is so courtly - you'd think a bunch of modern 17 year olds would be having some seriously x-rated thoughts. But then that would probably upset the younger readers. And maybe it is just my dirty mind, but I did end up smiling at some of the talk about wands: 'Wands are only as powerful as the wizards who use them. Some wizards just like to boast that theirs are bigger and better than other people's' (page 337, UK Edition). There is also a moment when we get into magical small print about the rules surrounding a certain object where things got a bit too vague to follow the fictional logic. And curiously, a gravestone for Harry's parents places this story - with some simple math - in 1997.
Quite a few people ended up dying in this book, more than I had heard through rumours beforehand. I enjoyed that so many characters from previous books showed up in small and big ways, though I have to confess that I had completely forgotten what the backstory is on some of Harry's fellow students and therefore they were just names to me. Though various people are re-introduced, Rowling wisely gives up on this near the end, when during an epic battle at Hogwarts pretty much everybody and their mother shows up - and that's not just a figure of speech. The character of Neville really comes into his own in this book, and has one of the coolest moments in it, even though the circumstances enabling it are contrived (you'll know what I mean when you read it).
The ending did not really surprise me, but it was spectacular, moving and even a touch metaphysical. After a couple of previous Harry-Voldemort encounters, I was wondering how Rowling was going to give this one weight and finality, but she manages very well. I even liked the last chapter - which she has always maintained she had written before she started on the first book - even though a lot of people online seem not to. It does wrap things up neatly, leaving you satisfied, melancholic and wanting to reread the whole saga, just so you don't have to leave quite yet. Having said all that, and fully acknowledging the genius that is Rowling for the magical mindspace she created for so many people to play in, the last three lines badly need a rewrite and I could barely keep from doing some after-the-fact editing with a ballpoint in my copy of the book. Which only goes to show how much she has made me care.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Movie Review: Shrek the Third

Yet another third entry into a franchise this year. Shrek learns about responsibility and fatherhood and we learn through him. Bless. I must admit I love the world of Shrek; the random assortment of characters from all sorts of fairytales and legends being ripped off, thrown together and used for cheap laughs. And I did still laugh a lot, even though the elements are starting to become a bit too familiar. Music-wise, there are once again the covers of old classics on the soundtrack and one or two sensitive/rocky songs during the emotional scenes. And there is the same delicate balance of keeping us involved by shamelessly manipulating our emotions, only to ultimately undercut those sensitive moments with some supremely silly comedy: as with the death scene of the king at the beginning of the movie.
Overall, this is the least successful of the three Shreks, mostly due to the lack of an ominous villain and a big climax. I love the character of Prince Charming and the voice-acting by Rupert Everett is great, but he just seems too lame to be any real threat, even when he is rallying an army of evil-doers or has Shrek at the tip of his sword. Our heroes don't seem too worried at any point during the final showdown, so why would the audience worry? Though the movie entertains throughout, as a whole it feels a little flat. I'll happily return for another outing into the land of Far, Far Away, but I do hope next time the Happily Ever After will have to be earned.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Movie Review: Excorcist - The Beginning

You don't really hold out much hope for a flopped prequel you picked up from a bargain bin. And it was one that has a troubled history at that. Two very different versions of the movie were made after the studio decided that there was not nearly enough action in the first. The first attempt was later released with the title Dominion: Prequel to the Excorcist and was directed by Paul Schrader. The second one was directed by Renny Harlin, who has made some fairly decent action pictures (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea). Stellan Skarsgård features as the lead in both: a young Father Merrin, who saved/ will save the girl in the original Excorcist.
Merrin travels to East Africa to find a creepy artifact. Once there, he is told about a church that has been discovered, buried under the sand. Later on, he finds a crucifix hanging upside down over the altar. Not a good sign - surely - and indeed people duly start going insane, getting possessed or dying in nasty ways.
The movie has a couple of problems; the biggest one being that the script does not make much sense. When you take The Devil as your main villain you are setting yourself a difficult task; how do you define the powers of the Big Evil? What can he do and what can't he do? Why is he able to possess whole flocks of animals but - apparently - only one human at a time, though he can make groups of people act crazy? Why does he not just kill or possess Father Merrin when he has the chance? It is unclear what rules are being played by and why God, who by extension is part of the plot, would allow this. The ultimate goal of Evil is also a mystery. Tension is even more deflated when we realise that - since this is a prequel - Merrin is pretty much safe, though everyone else is probably toast.
Frankly, it's all borderline silly, which is unfortunate as the movie plays it very straight and Ominous. But enough nit-picking. The story is basically about Merrin finding back his Faith. And about a bit of gore while he does it. The movie's strong points are mostly in its looks: good lighting, beautiful sets, nice cinematography. In special effects its reach exceeds its budget a little bit, most notably during the over-the-top climactic scene, which falls literally flat. I'd check out the more artsy Paul Schrader version to compare, but life is simply too short.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Television Rant

All Good Things Should Come to a Great End

Telling the story you want to tell in television can be a tricky process. Babylon 5 famously had a pre-planned five year story arc. When it came to the execution however, the ball was fumbled. When the fourth season was nearing completion, the series looked in serious danger of getting cancelled. So a 'final' episode was filmed, but then shifted to the end of the fifth season when - surprise - the series got renewed after all. Having very little production time on this last season, the quality dropped.

Spanners also get thrown into the wheels of the plot when an actor suddenly drops out for whatever reason or when an actrice gets pregnant. The writers have to work around the inconveniences real life deals them. Season endings can be particularly annoying: the creators of a lot of series try to lure you back to the next season by ending the last show on a cliffhanger. All fine and dandy, but that is very frustrating when said series does not end up having a next season. It is the zappers equivalent of getting to a really exciting part in a book and suddenly finding that all the remaining pages are blank.

Both the producers of television series and the American networks are to blame for this viewer-unfriendly work process. The networks often don't give a new series time to find an audience. They promote the hell out of it before it airs, then pull the plug when it doesn't score within a few weeks, betraying and angering the audience it was starting to build up. The producers - for their part - should realise that things might not work out the way they want it to and wrap things up fairly well season by season, rather than leave viewers hanging. Buffy the Vampire Slayer pulled this off, with a different main story arc for each season. It also makes good sense considering the ever-growing afterlife for series on DVD. A story without an ending is harder to sell. Graphic novels are starting to outsell comics for that very reason: people like their stories serialised, but in manageable nuggets and without a life-long commitment.

Getting rid of those season-ending cliffhangers will be difficult for a fairly twisted reason though: a sense of self-preservation among the producers. They seem to figure that a frustrating ending will whip the fans into action and might result in more episodes being shot - or even a complete next season. When Farscape ended with its two main leads apparently dead, it was through the loud protesting of fans that a three-hour miniseries was made to wrap things up neatly. And when Jericho was recently cancelled, the clamouring of fans led the network to decide to shoot seven additional episodes, with a view to renewing.

I think there should be a clause in the contract for any series: should it get cancelled, the crew should automatically get the budget to film an additional two or three episodes, with the intent of finishing the story. And if the networks have cold feet about new series, they should air shorter first seasons (let's say twelve-or-so episodes) that have a sense of completion to them. Daybreak had a thirteen episode run and got cancelled, but only left one or two plot-points hanging. It should be said that even these could have been removed by snipping out one or two shots (adding up to maybe thirty seconds in total) when it became clear that the series would not be renewed.

The fans for their part should gain some sense and realise that too much of a good thing can lead to that good thing becoming a bad thing. Series like Ally McBeal and many others made you wish for it to be retroactively axed a season or two before it actually was. It is better to have a loved series die while you still love it, than for it to keep hanging around until you just want the damn thing to DIE already. It feels like a slap in the face, when you invested so much time in a series, only to slowly watch it turn to crap and end on a bum note. Sometimes I can feel happy to know that a beloved series is ending. The coming season will be Battlestar Galactica's last, the producers have decided. This is a conscious creative decision, and it means they can go for broke with the story. Hopefully this will lead to a spectacular and fitting end and other series will follow suit.

But still - occasionally - I feel like a series has ended before its time. Yes, Veronica Mars, I am talking to you. It took a couple of episodes to get into it, but I loved the first season. The second series was a bit convoluted, but still worked and even the third season, though more uneven, was consistently entertaining. Truth be told - I could just could not get enough of the never-depleting supply of sass that Kristine Bell kept serving up. And she left our screens without that firm sense of resolution I have been talking about here. Bummer.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Unlike Spiderman 3 - which I had seen the day before - Pirates 3 lives up to its predecessors. But before I start singing its praises, I should get the negatives out of the way. First of all, it suffers from the same delusion most blockbusters do: it thinks that you can never get enough of frantic action and things blowing up real good. In the around nine hours of my life the trilogy took up, there were way too many extra's throwing around and/or stabbing stuntmen. The fights between ships got a bit boring: during most of them all our heroes and the main villains survived and only hundreds of people we didn't care about got killed. The characters joined us in not caring about any of these people even one little bit, which seemed a bit heartless. There were also a fair share of explosions I - and the movie - could easily have done without.
That said, Pirates 3 is a hoot. Some people say the second one sagged, and I do remember liking it less than the first, for the same reasons mentioned above. It was too frantic, too much running around and it felt overlong. The third one also feels a bit on the edge, but to its credit I never found myself looking at my watch. This time there is - again - a lot of running around but there are more and better jokes scattered throughout and there is time for a breather now and then.
Good luck keeping up with the plot. Motivations turn with the tide and I lost track of who was double-dealing with whom at some points and I gave up on remembering affiliations and grudges. As did, it seemed, the movie itself. By the end I am pretty sure everyone had screwed over everyone else at least once.
In any case, there is a highly contagious sense of fun throughout, especially when - after a truly bizarre and beautiful sequence, Captain Jack Sparrow (aka Johnny Depp) rejoins the land of the living. He is back in great form, swaggering, shooting off one-liners and doing double-takes with comic perfection. But then the whole cast has a firm grip on their funny bone and credit should also go to the writers: there are some truly inspired ideas, in particular the upside down 'Poseidon' scene. Kudos also for a cool, unexpected twist near the end.
Now if only they will quit while they are ahead. Nine hours of Pirates is enough, and some of the elements are already turning repetitive. I hope all involved can resist the urge to milk this cash cow any further, but I am sceptical. However, a short sequence after the end credits gives me a golden sliver of hope. Like a shiny doubloon.

Movie Review: Severance

Set 'em up, knock 'em down.

In Severance, a group of colleagues from an English weapons manufacturing company head to a far off, woody region for a teambuilding exercise and naturally get stranded there. Then one-by-one they start to get offed in horrible ways, for reasons I won't spoil here. So far, nothing new. Low budget film makers have been making horror movies from the 'isolate and kill' mould for years. The fun is in the execution, so to speak.
The actors get the first half of the movie to set up their characters and although they don't quite break away from stereotypes, they do engage us enough to make us care about their (potential) slaughter. It plays like an episode from The Office. There are: an ineffective leader, his yes-man, his arrogant and handsome challenger, a peacenik feminist, a nerd, a stoner and an American babe. The movie plays entertaining tricks on us by sticking deceptively close to cliché in both types and horror set-ups, but subverting those just enough to keep us unsettled. The movie won't terrify you, as the effective gallows humour is sometimes spectacularly silly and deflates some of the tension, but this also thankfully takes the edge off some gory and gruesome scenes later on. The movie's most entertaining gag involves a far off plane accidentally being taken out, with nó effect on the rest of the movie.
Apart from Tim McInnerny (of Blackadder fame) you might not quite be able to place the faces, all of them know mostly for television. This just adds to the fun as you can't always be sure what's going to happen next and to whom. The ending, like the rest of the film, is part cliché and part funny reinvention. At least it does not have one of those annoying open endings, where the final shot threatens a sequel. Recommended if you can stand gore.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Movie Review: Spiderman 3

Spiderman - with Extra Cheese

The story: Parker, Osborn and Watson work through their issues with each other while Sandman and Venom get on their case.

I had heard a lot of bad things about Spiderman 3, but still I could not conceive that the same people who made the good first Spiderman movie and the great second one, could make a really mediocre film. There had been missteps, most notably the misguided Power Rangers mask they gave the Green Goblin in the first outing. And Tobey Maguire had funny moments, but was always on the edge between charming and irritating as sappy Peter Parker. In this movie he crosses that line and joins Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn on the wrong side. The romantic triangle of friends was the core of the trilogy, but here especially, they are given flat, repetitive dialogue to work through their soapy melodrama. All of them are called on to give way too many doe-eyed stares. And the avenge-my-father arc that Osborn (pretty-boy James Franco) goes through is as eye-rollingly contrived as ever and lamely resolved. Should you go to see Spiderman 3 - and let's face it, you probably will, or have done already - wait for the moment where a character decides to finally divulge some information that could have come in useful before a major smackdown and was withheld for no reason whatsoever. See if you can keep from laughing. For that matter, a lot of the people in the theater - me included - were giggling at a supposedly very dramatic scene near the end as well. You will have no trouble spotting that scene.
You might also find yourself laughing at (not with) the movie during the parts where Spidey is influenced by the evil black goo from outer space. His Evilness is shown by having him have Weird Hair and strutting his supposed funky stuff around town. It is not clear if the people around him are supposed to find him Cool when he does this, but to us - the audience - he looks like an idiot.
It's not all bad; there are some effective bits of comedy and good one-liners and there are a couple of frantic, well-shot action sequences. But the movie could have done with a lot less major coincidences at least one less villain. The sand effects for Sandman are indeed spectacular and amazing, but the character is flawed. We are expected to feel for him because he is fighting for a good cause, even if it is in a bad way. It should apparently not matter that through his actions over the course of the movie, he must have maimed or killed at least some of the bystanders. Even if he didn't, by some miracle, it wasn't because he was so concerned about other people's welfare.
It's a shame that this trilogy ended on such a bum note. But then I doubt it will stay a trilogy for long. We can only hope that in the next one there won't be any more women hanging around screaming and falling from great heights only to be saved by Spidey at the last moment. And no more shots of Peter staring at Mary Jane from a distance, then a cut to her suddenly looking up because she 'felt' the stare, only for a second cut to reveal that *gasp* Peter Parker is gone. But he won't be, not until the money runs out.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cool Site: The Onion

Bless The Onion for their twisted sense of humour. Bringing you 'news' by way of insanity, or - in this case - a sixties stoner.

Comics Review: Astro City

Never let it be said that I am not right on the ball when it comes to my knowledge of comics. It is only slightly over a decade after publication that I read some of Kurt Busiek's legendary Astro City stories. There is always the danger that something that has been buzzing around in my mind as a must-read for so long will disappoint. When I finally read some Cerebus, I just could not understand the cult following around it. In its defense, I have this thing about wanting to follow a story from the beginning, so I started with the oldest stuff, where Dave Sim might just not have hit his stride yet. One day I will give it a second look. Also lingering in the partly-read pile are Preacher, Jeff Smith's Bone and Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. These I really want to marathon-read at some point when time and money allow. From what I read so far, they will be worth the investment.
Astro City has an interesting narrative set-up; first Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross thought up a city bustling with superfolk and a long and complex history. Then they started telling short, fairly self-contained stories, showing the place and the characters from interesting viewpoints. They are like snapshots, each story combining with the others to form a bigger picture. Though it seems like you could just start with about any issue, there is a build-up. In the first issue, the major hero gets introduced: Samaritan, basically Superman remixed. The powers and costume are not that original and that goes for pretty much the whole roster of Astro City superfolk, both heroes and villains. They often só closely resemble Marvel or DC characters that it's a wonder no one got sued: First Family? Fantastic Four anyone? And Winged Victory and Wonder Woman must be bosom buddies in some alternate reality.
These old chestnuts have been given very interesting twists though, an introspective take that makes them feel more 'real'. For instance, you might wonder how Superman can live with himself, wasting hours a day lounging with Lois Lane, when at any given second, he could be saving someone's life somewhere from a crime or calamity. To have a life of his own, he is in effect letting a lot of people die. Maybe he reasons that you can't save all of the people all of the time, but Samaritan feels he can't stop trying. He zooms around from place to place without stopping, not able to have a moment's rest. You start to feel that maybe all that responsibility might not be such fun after all, just a lot of hard work. By the end of the first issue, you understand completely why, on the first page, he dreamt of flying. Just aimlessly, blissfully flying. And so it goes in following issues: well-written short stories from the perspective of superfolk or civilians from Astro City, leading up to a satisfying twist at the end of them.
By the age of thirty, most comic readers will have matured beyond a lot of the monthly fare out there. Beyond the brainless battles between people in spandex, who occasionally die and get resurrected when it suits the publisher. The same plots, alternate realities, intergalactic wars, 'final' confrontations, crossovers and events and stories after which the characters 'will never be the same'. As the years roll by, the past is forgotten, characters get complete personality overhauls and the neverending soaps rumble onwards and onwards. Thankfully, there still are talented writers out there that can spin stories that stand on their own and have a unique feel and mood to them. Kurt Busiek is one of those writers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Konami: Making Small Waves

I don't often go on nostalgia trips, since they tend to end up being very disappointing. For years I eagerly awaited the moment that Disney would release The Black Cauldron (Dutch: Taran en de Toverketel) on DVD. In my memory, I had built the film up to be this big, scary event. It was pulled off the market for about twenty years (?), supposedly for making kids cry and therefore being a flop. At the time of the premiere there had been a lot of hype about the luminous mist in the movie, which was created with technology that was then cutting edge. As soon as the DVD came out, I bought it, ran home and... found out that it was mediocre and childish.
I have not had that experience revisiting my greatest childhood hobby, a couple of years ago: MSX games from Konami. By today's standards, the animation is seriously simple but the gameplay of my favourites has aged well, and the primitive music is still catchy. I don't know why somebody hasn't bundled them and sold them in a Nostalgia package, as has happened with other games from now defunct systems. I would happily revisit them on my Nintendo DS and think they would actually look pretty good on there. (Konami recently did bundle some games for DS, but not the good stuff, in my opinion.) As far as I know, the only way to play them now is:
a. hunt down a secondhand MSX and the original cartridges.
b. download them online somewhere to be played with an emulator on your pc.
The first option is way too costly in both time and money, the second one is potentially illegal unless you own the original cartridge. If you don't, the game should be deleted from your computer 24 hours after downloading. (Though who will be checking this, I don't know.) Possibly, you will be able to download them to your XBOX 360 or Wii or Playstation 3. But to me it seems clear they belong on the cosy screen of your handheld, like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which very easily made the GameBoy Advance its new home
What sparked this nostalgia? Well, I visited the site of a company that readies games for the European market and was planning on sending them an e-mail in which I named some of my favourite games.
Reflecting on my past as a gamer, I went and looked up an MSX fansite with information on Konami games - I found out that Konami means 'small waves' - which also featured some covers. Just seeing Maze of Galious still warms my thirty-something heart. It was the first game I ever bought myself, having slowly saved up money for this epic spending. It starred two cute little knights (one male and blue, one female and pink) running around a cute little castle, gathering cute little objects while fighting cute little monsters and the occasional Boss (Big Monster). I will have to see if I can still find that cartridge somewhere and go Old School. I will leave Salamander aside; this was a frustrating, never-finished (by me) shoot 'em up that nearly had my MSX2 being flung out of a window on several occasions.
Ah, and then there is the first game I ever played, Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum. But let us not speak of such things...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Movie Review: Night at the Museum

It is one of the basic kids' fantasies: things coming to life when no one is watching, except - in this case - one bewildered bystander. And the idea of a museum where the exhibits suddenly become animated, is an interesting one - if not a new one. The trouble is in the execution. It can be a slippery slope applying any kind of logic to a scenario like this and to a certain extent you should just enjoy the zaniness and put your higher critical facilities in cold storage for the duration. But there is a point at which even the less critical facilities can't suspend their disbelief any longer: there is no internal logic to this movie. The script keeps throwing cool things at the viewer: little people, a doggie-minded T-Rex skeleton, historical wax figures, a bubblegum craving Easter Island statue, etcetera - but none of these elements have been very well thought out on their own, let alone all of them in combination.
There are some attempts to explain what is happening and why, but this only points out how much is not explained. For instance; how a couple of escaped Neanderthals ditched the camera-people that had spotted them and made their way back to the museum undetected. Instead of thinking small and coherent, the movie thinks big and creates a literal and conceptual mess in doing so. This is really a kiddie-movie, only for those adults who are prepared to shut down their brain to a dangerous degree, stopping just short of vegetable. Fairly ironic for a movie that wants to convey the message that learning about stuff is GOOD.
Ben Stiller does his usual lame-but-cool guy shtick and does it as well as ever. The movie wastes most of the big comedy names in the cast (Robin Williams, Dick van Dyke, Ricky Gervais and Mickey Rooney) as well as the potential love interest, who never quite gets around to being the actual love interest. Maybe in the sequel.

Night at the Museum at IMDB

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie Review: 300

With much bombast, 300 tells the story of Leonidas of Sparta, who defends his city from the invading Persian forces, led by the evil boo-hiss Xerxes. Like Sin City, the look of the film is heavily based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the master of stylised grit. The movie looks painted and is rich in color; bronze, copper and red dominating the screen. And it's not just the locale that looks good, the brave 300- give-or-take - Spartans are all sporting impressive pectorals and sixpacks, and are blissfully devoid of shirts. I suppose that is what you get for purging any less-than-perfect offspring from the gene pool, as the beginning of the movie shows us. The Spartans also have absolutely no moral ambiguity about killing off wounded and helpless opponents. Yup, they are a bit of a tough bunch, as the narrator does not get tired of telling us.
Opposing these manly, quite homo-erotic musclemen are the odd, exotic and frankly somewhat gay Persians. They are lustful, deformed, vain and overly made up. Especially Xerxes looks like a pissed off drag queen, even though his voice sounds all low and rumbly, with the help of some computer effects.
The entire movie feels visceral, with a little bit of sweaty sex and a huge amount of violence. The Spartans spend an inordinate amount of time impaling invaders in slow motion. During some of this there is - surprisingly - some Heavy Metal music playing in the background. But given how much bloody slaughter is taking place, the movie does actually feel a bit slow all around and seems to have to stretch to fill its running time. The story is ultimately fairly simple and the overblown, po-faced dialogue does not work in the movie's favour. After a while you just feel like slapping that narrator when he starts waxing lyrical about the Spartans again. It's hard to care about anyone when everyone is working so hard to be tough.
In short, the movie is just about worth seeing for the visual style and the hot bodies (well, before the part where they get decapitated or some such). And maybe the rousing speeches will stir up your inner warrior. But more likely the movie will send you scuttling to the gym to work on your sixpack. Or to the store for some Leonidas bonbons (man, product placement gets everywhere these days...).

300 on IMDB

Cool Site: Engrish

A colleague of mine from the bookstore can laugh herself silly at any kind of unintentional physical pratfall. Thankfully, her closest co-worker obliges her by regularly tripping over things in the warehouse and almost breaking his neck in the process. Hilarity ensues.
Though I like a good, painful home video accident as much as the next guy, what can really brighten my day is well-executed linguistic silliness. I love it when someone goes through a lot of trouble to pull off a really lame pun (as in Airplane, for instance) but it can be even better when a funny phrase is unintentionally so and widely published. Have a look at the link below. Where a good proof reader be when needed is one?

Engrish Website

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Movie Review: Ghost Rider

Ah, so there's this guy who sells his soul to the Devil and ends up riding around on a motorbike with a flaming skull for a head, you say? Sounds a bit daft, no? Apparently not to Nicolas Cage who had been hell-bent (*snigger*) on portraying one of Marvel's more conceptually challenged heroes for quite some time. It is inherent in the basic idea that it rides a thin line between brooding gravitas (souls, damnation, judgement, all that jazz) and all-out silliness (...he's a flaming-skulled dude on a bike...).
Given the duality, it's no wonder that the movie ends up being a bit half-assed in both ways. It has some fun at its own expense, but plays it disturbingly straight at other moments and doesn't quite get away with it. And when a movie goes out of its way to create a mythology for itself, then it confuses and irritates when the established rules go out the window when they don't suit the screenplay later on. There are several moments where you go 'Hey, but if this character could do thís, then why not thát?' The ending especially does not make much sense.
There are some great visuals though and the flaming Ghost Rider persona impresses a lot more than his Nicolas Cage alter ego, sporting a seriously bad haircut. Some good one-liners almost make up for bad writing in other places and the whole thing is amusing enough in a cheesy sort of way. A sequel seems likely, and as long as they tighten up the script along with their internal logic and give Cage a better haircut, then it might be worth a second outing.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Book Review: Body Talk

Only a small percentage of communication is done through words. Most meaning is transmitted by the way we say things - inflection, tone - and through body language. Unfortunately, this body talk is a lot more open to interpretation, on both the sending and the receiving side and can get confusing if people come from different cultures. If somebody holds up his fingers in a V sign, he is signalling victory to some people, while being very rude to others.
There are those who have a natural knack for the subtleties of non-verbal communication, more instinctive than conscious, which gives them a distinct advantage on all social fronts, be it at home or at work. But by becoming more aware of how we carry ourselves and what signals we are sending and receiving, it is possible to be a little more suave and persuasive. Allen and Barbara Pease give their readers some useful pointers to this effect in their book The Definitive Book of Body Language: How to Read Others' Attitudes by Their Gestures.
It's a fast and funny read - though not always as funny as the authors intend it to be - and centres mostly on body language for business purposes. There are fascinating facts in here for everyone - though some might leave you a bit sceptical - and, as is often the case with reader-friendly social science books, sometimes things seem oversimplified. Also, the Peases suggest several practical and entertaining social experiments that I wouldn't advise trying on hapless friends, since you might end up real lonely, real fast.
The authors delight in pointing out the differences between men and women, the men turning out to be fairly deficient when it comes to reading body language. The emphasis on man vs. woman should come as no surprise, since they previously devoted a book to it:
Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps: How We're Different and What to Do about It. Both books provide information and entertainment in equal measure and just might improve your life.

By Allen + Barbara Pease:
The Definitive Book of Body Language, Orion Publishing
Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, Orion Publishing

Book Review: Good News for the Desperate and Amoral

Working in a bookstore, you regularly come across books that make you raise a quizzical eyebrow. We’re not only talking about vague or flaky books here - like the dubious, but very successful conspiracy book about reptiles secretly taking over the earth - but also morally suspect material. Who am I to say people couldn’t cure themselves of terminal diseases just by meditation or positive thought? But you have to doubt the integrity of the authors of such books, who might very well be meditating on dollar signs.

Male chauvinist pigs - or ‘players’, as the more delusional might call themselves - can now rejoice with the titles Make Every Girl Want You and The System, which promises to get you laid within twenty-four hours, regardless apparently of looks, social skills or personal hygiene. Though the first book sweetly leaves an opening for long term possibilities, the focus is on short-term SEX, catering to those men who have - presumably for good reason from a female perspective - gone without for too long. The gist seems to be that females are teasing, incomprehensible beings that irritatingly refuse to grant men their every sordid desire.

As these books pander to the Achilles’ heel of men, so does Mr. Right, Right Now! move right in for the kill on the desperately single woman. It comes all but equipped with a lasso, to reel in the poor, prospective partner as it blurbs: ‘Man Catching Made Easy’. One would think that keeping the man would be the actual challenge. And one can only imagine the emotional carnage that might result from a man who has read The System running into a woman with Mr. Right, Right Now! on her nightstand. These books should only be sold with obligatory purchase of Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps so that both clueless parties develop at least somewhat of an understanding of the other gender.

However, there is thankfully freedom of expression in the Netherlands and there are só many books and só many viewpoints, that it is impossible for us at ABC to impose moral judgement on what we buy for stock and special order for customers. Ultimately, it is you - the customers - who decide what is on our shelves by the age-old economic laws of supply and demand. So if you see a scary, dubious book in the store, remember that there is probably somebody around interested in buying it. Be afraid, be very afraid…

Make Every Girl Want You – John Fate, paperback, Axcione Publishing
The System – Roy Valentine, paperback, Eye Contact Media
Mr. Right, Right Now! – E. Jean Carroll, paperback, HarperResource
Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps - Allan and Barbara Pease, paperback, Orion Publishing Company

Book Review: Thumbs up!

Roger Ebert is one of America’s best-known film-critics and you will spot his name at the top of the list of reviews for just about any movie on the Internet Movie Database.

He became a part of American pop-culture with the program Siskel & Ebert where he and fellow reviewer, Gene Siskel, argued with each other about the merits of movies and judged them the good old Caesarian way; by giving them a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. Siskel has since passed away. Ebert is still at it with Richard Roeper as his new sparring partner.

Ebert has a refreshing, open-minded attitude about reviewing and he keeps his sense of humour on hand. Though his many viewing hours may make him more qualified to judge the comparative merits of a film than the average viewer, he is the first to admit that the judgement of a critic is ultimately just another opinion. However, Ebert’s love for the medium is so infectious you might find yourself coming down with a bad case of cinemania.

On the site of the Chicago Sun-Times, he has a forum where readers can argue with him or ask questions breaking the usual one-way communication between a reviewer and his audience. A collection of past entries is out in bookform: Questions for the Movie Answer Man. It is full of titillating trivia on a wide variety of cinema topics, with plenty of off-the-wall questions. The back-and-forth on the forum also resulted in Ebert’s ‘Bigger’ Little Movie Glossary, a conveniently indexed collection of movie-clichés, including entries by Ebert’s readers. This book vastly improves any bad movie you might see, since you can entertain yourself by tallying up every cliché you spot. It is currently hard to get hold of, but ask our staff and they’ll do their best.

Ebert’s reviews are collected every year (latest addition: Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007) and a good addition to any bookshelf. For the newcomer, however, I would recommend starting with one of these two collections: The Great Movies or I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie. The former is a collection of one hundred essays originally published on the Sun-Times site, about – well, duh – Great Movies that no one should miss out on. The latter is a collection of reviews of bad, BAD movies. Why would you want to read a review of a bad movie you wouldn’t want to see anyway? Because Ebert’s enthusiastic, funny rants are entertaining in their own right and are often so intriguing that you end up feeling like you want to witness the awfulness for yourself!

Books by Roger Ebert:
Questions for the Movie Answer Man
Ebert’s ‘Bigger’ Little Movie Glossary
Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2007
The Great Movies
I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie

Book Review: A Star is Porn

If you get bored in the summer and regular hobbies like reading, crochet, animal husbandry and churning butter fail to provide adequate relief, why not round up a group of people to make your very own porn movie?

As Victoria Coren and Charlie Skelton discovered - it can be quite an adventure. Paired up to review porn videos for the periodical The Erotic Review, they decided they could do better and would make the best porn movie EVER!! One with a real plot and everything: ‘telling a story to people who just want to watch sex, and are sitting through the narrative bits under duress, is truly ambitious.’ Ultimately this lead to The Naughty Twins, a celluloid gem about, well, twins who go on a quest to find a mystical artifact and discover the world – especially its sexy parts – as they go. Victoria and Charlie went on a parallel journey of naughty exploration making the movie, being pretty much wide-eyed and naive at the beginning. What will their families think? Especially Charlie’s dad, the vicar?

To distance themselves from friends and family they decide to shoot in Amsterdam, even though they feared that they ‘might get stabbed and thrown in a moonlit canal’. After agreeing on what’s ‘hot’ and what’s ‘not’ (‘boredom’ and ‘death’ are both ‘not’) they decide to write the script in Las Vegas, because “Porn needs to be written in a porny place.” They talk to some veterans from The Biz for advice on their project and come face to face with the realities of the large-scale porn industry – which has a habit of chewing people up and spitting them out.

Then there’s assembling a crew and cast, finding locations, and all the technical hoopla; no mean feat for two directors who don’t know the difference between a ‘boom’ and a ‘gaffer’. They mingle with a variety of oddball characters as they enter a new and morally ambiguous realm. To add to the confusion, Vicky has a dalliance with the bi-sexual, strongly religious, Yugoslavian rent-boy who stars in their movie.

Once More with Feeling is an open, sweet confessional that oozes charm and is drenched in very British irony. Light and entertaining, it makes for perfect summertime reading while containing plenty of funnysophical musings on the topics of morality and sex. Does porn have to be soulless and exploitative?

By the way, the word ‘porn’ only appears on the cover in small letters so you can read it in a train, on the beach, or on a plane without blushing. To read it without laughing out loud is more of a challenge.

Once More with Feeling: How We Tried to Make the Greatest Porn Film Ever - Victoria Coren, Charlie Skelton

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pod People

It has been going on for quite some time now. Pay attention on the streets and you'll notice the proliferation of distinctive white earplugs. The attached technology is hidden within the folds of coats. The owners resist the temptation to show off in order to protect it from the weather and from grabbing hands. This summer there will no doubt be a grand revelation as extra layers of clothing are shed and the Apples are brought out into the open. I will be one of the people displaying the fruit, for I am now one of them: the Pod People.
With the arrival of the iPod Shuffle, the iPod Nano and the iPod Video, the Apple Mp3 brand has reached an all-time high of hipness and portability. This trinity has the market covered: the sturdy, relatively cheap Shuffle on one end, and the more vulnerable and expensive Video on the other, with its video capabilities and enough memory to suck up the average person's entire CD collection. The Nano holds the middle ground in price and memory, packing a large amount of music - and pictures - into a tiny gizmo.
As apparent in the significantly titled booklet Your iPod Life, these are not just mp3-players, they are a lifestyle and it's all about the accessories! There are protective jackets, special iPod speaker-sets, fancy earplugs, all kinds of nifty cables and doohickeys to give your iPod extra capabilities or longer battery-life. Author Dan Frakes has picked what he considers the best items and shows you where to find them both on and offline. You could easily bankrupt yourself buying all the neat stuff available.
Once you have pimped your iPod and feel ready to actually start using it, there are several guides to help you get the most out of it, and of its conjoined twin, the music managing program iTunes. Three of these guides are listed below. You might want to flip through them to be sure they cover 'your' iPod - in the current editions, only some cover the Nano and none cover the Video.
When your ears start to bleed from incessantly listening to music and you need a change, why not start the aural equivalent of a blog and make a Podcast? In Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide you will learn how to find and download podcasts, as well as how to make your own and start sharing your dazzling thoughts with the world.
And if that starts to bore you, why not hack into your iPod to make it do things that Apple failed to put on the menu, like reading e-mail? You can also learn how to open it up and replace the battery, saving yourself a bundle of cash. Not for the faint of heart or technophobic, iPod & iTunes Hacks has the goods on modding your Pod. If you don't know what modding means then you should give it a pass.
As with all things hip, a countermovement has emerged. Members scoff at the leader of the pack and proudly tote the 'superior', lesser known brands favored by those in the know. I do not claim to be a hardware expert and they may well be right to scoff. But I'm off to buy a bumper sticker that says: 'iPod, do you?' And then I suppose I'll have to go and buy myself a car…

Books Reviewed:
Your iPod Life
The Pocket Idiot's Guide to the iPod
iPod and iTunes Quicksteps
The Rough Guide to iPods, iTunes & Music Online
Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide
iPod & iTunes Hacks