Saturday, August 30, 2008

Movie Review: Mamma Mia!

Sophie was raised by her single mother on an idyllic Greek island and is about to get married. She has no idea who her father is. Naughtily reading her mother's old diary, she narrows the gene pool to three guys her mom dallied with twenty years ago and she invites them all to the wedding under false pretences. Such is the unlikely framework for the musical Mamma Mia!, which serves as an excuse to string ABBA songs together. These are often only mildly appropriate to the situation at hand and though some have been edited slightly to fit the story and make sense in context, others will leave you scratching your head in confusion, the use of 'The Winner Takes It All' being a prime example. I saw the Dutch stage version of this musical a couple of years back, and the movie appears to be faithful to its theatre roots.
Watching Mamma Mia! is like being repeatedly slapped about the face with a rainbow while being told to turn your frown upside down. At the beginning you might feel a bit left out of the aggressively cheerful camaraderie that unites most of the cast from the very start. It's like coming sober to a party where the others are already tipsy and well into the swing of things. There are two reactions to this movie: go with it and smile or flee the theatre and don't look back.
It's obvious that the cast was having a ball and their fun is infectious. Not all of them are equally gifted when it comes to singing. Let's just say that you will be glad that James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) never belted one out for his own opening credits. Meryl Streep does a little better, thankfully, as she does a lot more warbling than Brosnan. But the overall lack of polish is part of the charm. Nobody seems to be taking any of it seriously. Some of the dancing is especially over the top silly, never more so than when a row of boys in flippers strut their stuff on a sun-drenched dock. I couldn't help but feel a bit embarrassed for them.
Don't expect the characters to ever fully become 3D, they are all sketches at best and are jumping through the unlikely hoops of the plot. Comedies like this one, which are based on secrets and misunderstandings, thrive on people not doing the most logical and direct thing to solve their problems. A happy ending was obviously unavoidable, but the emotions in play at the climax weren't set up properly earlier in the movie. A small gay twist at this time, which probably wasn't hinted at before to make it a bigger surprise, feels to the viewer like it was made up on the spot. The larger romantic twist was predictable but is unbelievable because the two people who make a major leap of commitment, barely seemed to be on good terms up until that point. But you don't watch this movie for coherence or plot; you watch it to see some fairly major stars bust a move in a dreamily tropical location, while lovingly torturing ABBA songs. And on that slightly off-key note: don't miss the performance at the end credits.

Mamma Mia!, 2008. 108 min. Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth.

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I really tried to keep my expectations low for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I had heard mixed things about it, but being a fan of the first three films and even of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, I could not give it a pass. The plot: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) now finds himself in the Cold War era - a bit older and greyer but still combining his job as a teacher with his activities as a daredevil archaeologist. To help out a friend, he travels to Peru in search of a Crystal Skull with mysterious origins. Adventure ensues and things get personal.
Certain plot elements were widely leaked before the movie came out and they seemed promising. The return of Marion (Karen Allen), Indy's love interest from the first film, boded well as they had great chemistry and Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) looked set to be a fun side-kick. I sat down with my popcorn and admired the charming fifties setting, with its greasers and anti-commie sentiment. And I watched several entertaining but often amazingly silly action sequences. (Don't duck and cover kids, just hide in the refrigerator.) One of them featured an embarrassingly obvious stunt-double for Harrison Ford climbing through a car. And I listened to the dialogue with trailer-friendly one-liners that were frequently delivered a little too self-conscious as if to say: 'Please quote me on this and repeat it to your friends.'
I could not really get into it. The movie comes across as both homage and epilogue to the original trilogy rather than an equal sequel, though it does give Indy's life an extra dimension it had been missing and a sense of closure. The main story seems a retread in the way it was structured: a lot of scenes recycled and remixed but hitting the same beats. The climax is also predictable in following the Indiana Jones mold, to the point of being boring. The Crystal Skull itself - so central to the story - just looks goofy any time it is on the screen and makes it hard to take all the reverence towards it serious. The previous movies already didn't seem too concerned with believability if it impaired a cool scene, but this entry gives up on the concept entirely. It takes away from the tension, as the heroes can survive pretty much anything and are in no real danger.
Even on a simple emotional level the plot doesn't track: Marion and Indy set aside their differences in no time and reignite the spark, even though neither one cared enough to stay in touch over the years. And it seems unlikely that Marion never let Indy in on a certain little secret she had been carrying around. But then the focus is not on the characters, it is on the silly action sequences and the odd-looking skull. After seeing this movie I don't really know if I would like to see Indiana Jones return. It is a shame; the previous movies thrilled me but with this one, as the end credits started to roll, I looked over at my friends and we shrugged at each other. Just another popcorn movie.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008. 124 min. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf.

Movie Review: The Ruins

The Ruins is an isolate-and-kill horror movie, based on an allegedly thick and depressing novel (unread by me). The ending has been fiddled with, so it does not match the one in print and on the DVD there is yet another alternate ending - though mostly just extended. But it is not so much what happens at the end of the movie that interests me, it's more what happened before the movie even started, since that is still unclear to me (see SPOILERS section down below).
A group of six tourists veer off the beaten path while in Mexico, to visit a Mayan temple. There are two American couples, a Greek and a German who is looking for his brother. As you might guess, some or all of these will end up being toast. When they get to the temple, they are accosted by a man who shouts things at them in a language they don't understand. The man's friends show up and before long, the tourists are driven up the side of the temple, which is now surrounded. Their captives stay away from the structure however. The tourists are not allowed to leave, but they are unsure why. Things take a creepier turn for them as dead bodies are found and ring-tones are not what they seem. Their original, bold assertion that American tourists couldn't possibly just go missing without anybody looking for them, gets weakened as they spend a couple of days and nights on the top of the temple. Some of the group start to fall by the wayside.
The Ruins is not for the squeamish; there is some graphic bloodletting, which looks fairly realistic. The actors play it believable enough for you to want to look away. The slowly building despair and exhaustion are also brought across pretty well, making you feel for the characters, even if they are a bit bland and sometimes make really stupid decisions. The ultimate Evil that is propelling the plot, stays a little ill-defined, but manages to make your skin crawl, even as it borders on being laughably silly. All in all it is a capably done genre-movie that will keep you entertained and grossed out for 90 minutes, even though a fair amount of logical loopholes will not go unnoticed (see SPOILERS).

Given the explanation for what is going on, why don't the people surrounding the temple just shoot the tourists once they have decided they can't leave? And with regards to containment: what about the spores, which seem to be spreading by air as well? The isolation of the temple is by no means airtight. If the plants are truly that virulent, they would also be spreading further by ground, not stopped by a small strip of salt. Why is the vegetation not actively attacking the tourists up top but waiting until they are (almost) dead? And how did this form of greenery end up isolated within this temple? No explanation is given, and I could not come up with a plausible one. How the plants became intelligent is also not explained, but that's probably a good thing, as any explanation would probably end up being very silly.

The Ruins, 2008. 93 min. Director: Carter Smith. Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Laura Ramsey.

Television Review: Lost

Lost is about the survivors of a plane crash who end up on an island where all sorts of strange things happen. As the series goes on, we discover more about the twisty past of the large cast of characters through flashbacks and also - in the 'present' - about the nature of the island. Without spoiling too much: a violent creature roams the woods, people who couldn't possibly be on the island walk around there regardless and a shady corporation has been doing strange experiments there. More than one external force has it out for the survivors and even the island itself seems to have a plan for them, one possibly connected to 'karma'. Most of the drama plays out on a sunny beach or in a sumptuous tropical forest.
Lost is a series you get the most out of by starting from the very beginning, watching as pieces of a very elaborate puzzle start to interlock. The brains behind Lost - among whom creator J.J. Abrams of Alias and Cloverfield fame - are meticulous about drip-feeding just enough new information in each episode to keep you guessing and hungry for more. Considering that they clearly scoff at linear storytelling, it is ironic that all the episodes need to be seen in order to not get - well - lost. Where for the first two seasons or so the stories jumped between the 'present' on the island and the twisty past of the plentiful cast, by now there are also jumps into their future. It is to the writers' credit that you won't often get confused about where you are in the narrative. However, because of a lot of casually referenced back story, you might find yourself scratching your head regularly if you don't tune in every week.
The most regular complaint about Lost is a lack of forward momentum. Because of the trips into the past and several storylines running concurrently at most points, a cliff-hanger to one episode might stay unresolved until a couple of weeks later. Too many lingering reaction shots and a general unwillingness of everybody on the island to either ask an obvious, direct question or give a direct answer can also get on the nerves. Everybody is withholding information from everybody else for sometimes unbelievable reasons. It is an obvious way to extend some of the plotlines and to build tension.
I have to admit that I almost bailed on the series at the beginning of the third season, when the first ten episodes or so stalled: the writers just seemed to be milking for time. Luckily the series soon recovered with a clearer sense of purpose and I can't help but think that the writers' strike actually helped the abbreviated fourth season, with just fourteen episodes. The creators claim to have the whole story mapped out until the end of the series, the next two seasons supposedly wrapping it up. They were forced to speed up their storytelling to end the fourth season at the point they had originally planned, leading to some pleasantly compact episodes.
More and more answers are surfacing about the connections between all the strange things that have been happening in Lost. I am wondering if the next two seasons will be able to tie everything together satisfactorily. It could very well be that the final explanation will end up either being a bit silly or will create retroactive plot-holes. Not until the final reel is out there, will the viewers be able to judge how well the whole thing holds together. Though I generally admire the writing for Lost, the writers have messed up before a couple of times when it comes to believability. There was the foretold death of one of the regulars for instance, which was presented as heroic and necessary, but turned out to be completely avoidable and therefore stupid when the moment arrived. The island appears to be shrinking as the series goes on: by now it seems to take a lot less time to get from one side of it to the other than it did at the beginning of the series. Amazingly, people often tend to just happen to run into each other in the huge forest when the plot requires. And the non-featured survivors seem all too aware of their status as extra's and will pop up, disappear and sometimes die without having much of an impact on anyone. If you saw the season four finale (mild spoiler alert) ask yourself this: why wasn't anybody mobbing the helicopter and why weren't the main characters concerned about the well-being of the other survivors? Oh well, the occasional logical lapse notwithstanding, I will definitely be hanging around to watch the final lap. Here's hoping they don't lose the plot.

Book Review: Candy Everybody Wants

Josh Kilmer-Purcell is convinced you won’t like his second book: Candy Everybody Wants. He states this in the 'PS' section in the back of the book, which contains some 'behind the scenes' extras. He assumes this partly because everybody will be comparing it to the first book and people will tend to find it either too similar or too different. Also, he has jumped genres, so he fears the public won’t know what to make of it. His first book – I Am Not Myself These Days – was a ‘memoir in drag’, a mostly true autobiographical story, slightly fictionalized under creative license. It describes a time in Josh’s life when he hoisted himself into elaborate and uncomfortable drag outfits and livened up New York’s club scene as AquaDisiac, a character whose trademark was a set of plastic breasts in which live goldfish swam. He drank amazing amounts of alcohol, regularly waking up in unfamiliar surroundings next to unfamiliar people. During the day he somehow managed to function at an advertising agency. Josh then ran into Jack, a male s&m escort who would end up developing a drug problem. The core of the book is their strangely sweet but doomed affair. The tale is very well-written, with ironic detachment and with a sharp wit always at the ready.
Candy Everybody Wants is a novel which, according to Josh, describes his childhood the way he wished it had happened. A young gay kid with Hollywood ambitions finds himself surrounded by a ‘family’ of oddball characters and flirts with fame when he gets cast for a successful commercial. In accordance with Josh’s expectations, I have to admit I liked this book a little less. The story is front-loaded with the introduction of most of the strange cast and then the slightly overwrought plot takes over. The overall feeling is that Josh is trying too hard to be interesting and quirky. The characters either don’t get any real room to develop or are developed in ways that serve the plot first and foremost. It doesn’t help that the main character is self-involved and calculating. This might be necessary for his emotional arc throughout the book, but the change does not go far enough to make him very likeable.
There are some themes that make a subtle comeback in Josh' second book: prostitution, drugs and a craving for attention are present again. But the tone remains light this time and several unbelievable plot twists and coincidences distance the story too much from reality to really worry about what happens to the cast: a ‘deus ex machina’ seems to be lurking around the corner.
It might be mostly my expectations that let me down: I Am Not Myself These Days was an insightful psychological journey that resonated with me and that I might even read again some day. Candy Everybody Wants by comparison is fun fluff that doesn’t delve very deep. It is – however – a perfect book to take with you on a sunny summer holiday. Even below his peak and without see-through breasts, Josh ultimately does not fail to entertain.

Television Review: Doctor Who

Doctor Who is a British television series about a Time Lord. This is an alien who looks totally human, but possesses two hearts and has the ability to regenerate into a different body - and therefore a different actor - when he is on the edge of death. There used to be a lot of Time Lords, but according to the current run of the television series, Doctor Who is the last survivor of a terrible battle with the Daleks, a murderous race of robot-aliens. He bounces around time and space, accompanied by one or two 'companions' at a time, in an unexpectedly roomy blue telephone box called the Tardis, averting disasters and saving the galaxy. I guess the telephone box was deemed nicely inconspicuous by the misguided soul who designed it. (Since I wrote that, I have been informed by more fanatic fans that this look is due to a malfunction of some computer gizmo or another, which the doctor has been unable to fix.)
The regeneration aspect is a handy one for the producers behind the series. If the actor who plays Doctor Who wants to bow out, the character can be mortally wounded and regenerate. This actually happened after the first series in the new incarnation, when Christopher Eccleston decided to leave, causing 'his' Doctor to morph into David Tennant. (Tennant is still going strong and wildly popular, so don't expect him to change again soon if the producers get their way.) What adds to the fun is that the Doctor's personality is allowed to change slightly to suit the new actor. While in other series it would be a headache to have the lead leave, for Doctor Who it just allows a new dynamic and new stories.
Doctor Who was off the air for a long time, originally running from 1963 until 1989. It was revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies of Queer as Folk fame to success beyond all expectations. The fan base of the sci-fi series rivals that of Star Trek in their fanaticism, so it was quite an achievement that Russell managed to placate both them and hook a new generation of viewers. I think he played fast and loose with some of the continuity of the previous series, but I can't be sure as there is too much material in the form of novels, radio-plays and episodes for me to wade through.
The set-up of Doctor Who allows near unlimited potential for telling stories: all of time and space are the playing ground. Believability is an issue, as the butterfly effect (small changes have major consequences) gets even more confusing when continuously jumping around in time. The current Doctor Who philosophy is that there are 'fixed' points in time, which have to remain unaltered and other points when things are more flexible and you can safely muck around a little. I am not sure how that would work temporally speaking, but mostly this logic is fitted to suit the scripts. Davies' take on the stories is one of high adventure and big emotions, done with such infectious enthusiasm that you happily suspend disbelief. Granted, especially in the episodes he wrote himself, he really makes you work for that suspension. Major problems are solved or can't be solved because of obscure bits of technobabble, just to set up cool scenes. The rules of what can happen and what can't are often not very clear. When the resulting scenes are indeed cool enough, you won't care but sometimes when they're not, you end up rolling your eyes.
One of the biggest changes Davies made to the original concept was giving the people who join Doctor Who on his travels a background and families to deal with. Previously these 'companions' mostly served as sounding boards - so the doctor wouldn't just talk to himself - or as people to be saved. They would ride along until they started to feel old and then be written out in one quick way or another. The 'new' Doctor has already gone through three companions in the current run, each one giving the stories a new spin. With Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) there was a mutual attraction - a first in Doctor Who history, I believe - Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) crushed on the Doctor and Donna Noble (comedienne Catherine Tate) humorously clashed with him, as an equal. The way in which these companions were written out of the series - for the time being anyway - shows a definite strength of Davies: a great balance of bitter and sweet. There may be despair sometimes in the Doctor Who reality, but there is always hope. The hope sometimes veers into sappy territory, but then it is supposed to be an upbeat series also aimed at youngsters.
The aliens look silly enough to remind you of this target audience. Whether they bring to mind spiders or rhino's or Mr. Potato Heads, the ET's always look like they needed a slightly bigger special effects budget. But at least the producers have the guts to get creative and stray from the humanoid form occasionally. The Daleks - deadly robots with a little alien inside - have traditionally been the most popular of enemies for Doctor Who, but I have never understood why. On the surface they look cool enough - to sell toys anyway - but as killer robots go, they seem awkward and restricted in their movements. When I see their big spaceships and lairs I can't help but wonder who did the construction on it, as they only seem to sport one spindly little gripper in front and something that looks like a toilet plunger.

In the recently aired and somewhat overstuffed finale to the fourth season, Davies wraps pretty much all of his ongoing storylines into a big bow. He will be around for four Doctor Who specials, which will be airing throughout 2009, before leaving the series. I wonder if he will be starting any new mythology or if he will make the specials self-contained, to give his successor Steven Moffat a fresh start. Moffat penned some of the most popular episodes of the new series and he previously created the UK version of the comedy series Coupling, which had some very inventive storytelling. I will be curious to see in which direction he takes the franchise. The next episode to air will be a Christmas special in December. Before then, do yourself a favour and catch up on the 2005-and-beyond run of the series, even if you didn't like the older episodes. If not for you, then do it for your inner child.

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed In Flames

(Review written for The American Book Center)
There are not many writers who I enjoy hearing as much as I enjoy reading them. While seated at a reading, my mind will generally start to wander and I will get annoyed with myself for missing part of what is being said. Or I will get annoyed with the author for not matching the narrative voice I heard in my mind when I read his/her book. But I did not have either of these problems with David Sedaris when he visited Amsterdam a couple of years go, to promote his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I had already gotten hooked on in his audio-books a while before meeting him in person at the ABC (The American Book Center) organised event. His voice had preceded him on CD and Live it did not disappoint. There is a dry, wry wit in all his writing that comes across as amplified when read aloud by Sedaris with his typical laconic, laid-back delivery. Sedaris' new book has just arrived in our store: When You Are Engulfed In Flames. While I read it, Sedaris' voice whispered into my ear, giving me a private reading. Soon I will have to look up his audio-book version.

For those who don't know: Sedaris' oeuvre consists of semi-autobiographical short stories. They are 'semi' because he cheerfully admits to fudging some of the facts under creative license, to make for a better tale. The smoking skeleton on the cover is a mash-up of two of the stories from the book. In one a skeleton he bought for his boyfriend Hugh keeps telling him that he is going to die, in another he gives up smoking. Those of you who have read previous books by Sedaris - until recently frequently spotted amidst large clouds of bluish smoke - just gasped at that last bit of information. This story is by far the longest one and also the last one. I won't spoil the details, but it leads him to Tokyo and to the title of the book. The Sedaris family is on the back-burner this time around and more time is spent in France, where Sedaris now lives with Hugh. If you were curious about the writer's present as well as his past, this curiosity will be at least partly satisfied.
Apart from the slight shift in attention, not much has changed in regards to the style and structure of the stories. If you loved previous Sedaris books, you will love this one as well. If you didn't, you won't. And if you've never read Sedaris, then what are you waiting for: come and get some at the ABC!

Movie Review: Rambo (2008)

It has been a while since I saw a movie that made me feel dirty. And not dirty in a sexy way, but in a moral way. Rambo starts with some documentary footage of real people in Burma suffering, combined with a short history lesson. Then we are shown in a very graphic way how a local infantry unit is killing off civilians in that region. If the movie had developed into a serious treatise on the horrors of physical violence, the scenes would have served their purpose. They succeed at making you very angry and despair at the pointless, horrible torture people inflict on each other in the real world. They will also stir yearnings for justice and revenge, which is of course where Rambo steps in. He has withdrawn into the jungle after the events of previous movies but is persuaded to bring a group of religiously motivated aid workers into the area. Later on, he will be called on to get them out of trouble with the assistance of a group of mercenaries. Rambo is morose and silent a lot and turns out to have some daddy issues. Judging by the end of the movie, he worked those out by ripping people apart with machine guns, cutting throats and in general painting the jungle red. I did not grasp the subtle details of this psychological journey, but then all the gunfire and explosions made it hard to think straight. I assume Rambo must have been suffering from the same problem.
To personify the evil Major Pa Tee Tint, the sadistic leader of the military unit, is singled out. The viewer is presented with lingering shots of him that give us time to beam our hatred out at him. And it is not enough that he is carelessly killing lots of people, there has to be a scene that shows he is abusing young boys for sex. Because mass murder in itself would not be enough for us to want him dead, he has to be a paedophile as well and a gay one at that. I can't be sure if it was intentional that a boy was shown and not a young girl, but the movie sure seems to be playing to base homophobic instincts in its presumably straight and bloodthirsty audience.
There are one or two scenes at the end that appear introspective and seem to suggest there is a moral hidden in the movie somewhere, but I couldn't find one. This was the best I could come up with: violence inflicted by bad people is BAD, violence inflicted by good people is GOOD, but either way it looks pretty damn cool! For future reference: grafting a sensationalist and gruesome action movie onto a real historical tragedy is a little tacky.

Book Review: Infected

Getting Under Your Skin - Scott Sigler's Infectious Horror Novel

Scott Sigler was annoyed when the publishing world refused to put him in print. So he took one of his 'books' and turned it into a podcast, then a free pdf file and several successful, freely distributed online 'books' later he now finds himself in print after all, thanks to Random House. It turns out that even when people can read a story online for free or listen to it, they are willing to pay for the more tangible version. Sigler fiddled around a little with his story 'Infection' which has been renamed 'Infected' in its paper form. It is a horror novel about an infection that causes bluish triangles under the skin in its victims and makes them go violent and paranoid. Where is this disease coming from? And is there a purpose to it?
The book is initially split three ways. It follows couple of researchers and Dew, a CIA operative, who are all trying to make sense of a series of murders/suicides. Then there is Perry, a fairly recent infectee, who slowly starts to go through some disturbing changes. And lastly there is a gleeful description of the internal progress of the infection, detailed enough to give the semblance of making scientific sense.
Normally this is the sort of story that I would prefer to see in a movie theatre: I don't often find much style or substance in the contemporary horror or action-thriller genre and Infected is a combination of both. Some parts of the book confirmed my bias. The chapters about the researchers are obviously just a way for the writer to bring across information and give an outside perspective on the infection, but the characters don't amount to much. They are given some defining personality traits, but these are ultimately irrelevant. Dew the CIA operative is given a bit more time and dimension, but with his bitter Vietnam veteran past, he skirts close to cliché. The meat of the story - literally - is in following the process of infection in Perry, an ex football player with daddy issues. Sigler takes sardonic pleasure in describing the biological details and doesn't hold back on the gore. I squirmed my way through a lot of parts that involved various forms of bodily fluids and mutilation. There is one part in particular near the end that will make the eyes of half the readership water. When Perry starts having an interior dialogue with the triangles under his skin, things start to feel like a Stephen King novel, which is good or bad depending on your opinion of Stephen King. For me, these were the most interesting parts of the book; a slow descent into madness.
There are some believability issues: I did not buy the fact that Perry doesn't go and get help for his condition earlier on, when his judgement is not impaired yet. And Perry seems to be going through his infection in a different way than other victims, but because we never follow another victim, the difference is unclear.
The ending is open, the possibility of a sequel looming. I am not sure I would read one if it came out, but to fans of gory medical horror I can recommend Infected for a slightly sickening weekend at the beach. Hypochondriacs: steer clear.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

We Know Where You Blog...

Being a very minor figure in the Blogosphere, I don't get a lot of e-mail feedback. However, when I do, it tends to be interesting. In ye olde beginning, with an air of overwhelming optimism, I had started two blogs: my current one and one focussing on gay themes , which is now on hiatus. My first e-mail response ever stemmed from the first article I put up on that blog, a tongue-in-cheek guide to making an effective online profile for dating sites. The e-mail came from an editor at a local, bilingual gay magazine (Gay & Night) asking me if he could publish it. I happily agreed, making a Dutch translation and spinning it off into an ongoing series of articles about dating, relationships and sex for gay men. I will try to convert these into a book at some point (to all publishers out there: contact me if interested).
Next I received a compliment from sex advice columnist Dan Savage about a piece I had written about him on my gay blog. But to be honest: I had pointed him towards the article, which was very positive about him. So that was more of a mutual pat on the back.
Then arrived a puzzling e-mail from a woman in the US, who was looking for a ghostwriter for her autobiography or - failing that - someone who could hook her up with a publisher. Her life story was indeed an interesting one and she managed to condense it into two paragraphs. In rambling, semi-literate English she told me how she had gone to jail for killing her husband, even though it had been self-defence. She defended the act to me as if I was on the jury at her trial and it had obviously escaped her attention that I was on the other side of the Atlantic. I briefly considered pushing her for more details on this juicy story, but in the end I decided that leading on a convicted murderer was probably not a good idea, even if she wasn't on the same continent. I ended up telling her my connections in the US were limited and that she should probably try to find someone local.
Last week I received an e-mail from someone doing publicity for Ocean's 7-11. This is a series of 8 webisodes about the shenanigans of a group of 'North Hollywood misfits', as the press release states. The first part aired in January and the second one goes online on the 28th of June. The series parodies Ocean's 11 while paying homage to the people who made it. The first webisode was picked as a Featured Video by Yahoo and this got the video 30.000 hits within one day. I have taken a look at the first webisode and my one word review of it would be 'charming'. Mostly though, I am puzzled that I was targeted to spread the word about this series. As far as I know, I have racked up nowhere near 30.000 hits in the years I have been online. The makers of the series apparently are fans of my blog - the publicist said so in the e-mail anyway - but I don't think I ever heard from them before. Maybe I am just paranoid but it made me wonder: do I have fans? If so, where are they, as they never call, they never write, they never fax and in general don't make a peep. So someone please tell me: am I really famous but you guys forgot to clue me in? Anybody reading this? Anybody out there? Hello?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: I Am Not Myself These Days

I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell taught me a few things about myself: I would make a lousy drunk and an even lousier drag queen. The irregular hours and lack of sleep would totally derail my tight schedule and the black-outs would also put me off: waking up not knowing where I was, with possibly a naked stranger next to me. Plus, I doubt I would be any good at walking in high heels.
Josh's book is a memoir of sorts - but the names, descriptions and some of the events have been changed to protect the not necessarily innocent. The book describes a highly problematic though at times oddly sweet romance he lived through - barely - with a male prostitute.
At night Josh glammed up New York's club scene in outrageous outfits as AquaDisiac, whose trademark was a set of see-through breasts in which live goldfish swam. Aqua/Josh consumed a fair amount of alcohol on these nights, waking up trashed and confused, only to have to stumble to a day job at an ad agency. Quite how Josh managed to get through the days while seriously sleep-deprived and drunk or hung over baffles me. As a control freak, I almost experienced anxiety attacks just reading about his constant state of restlessness and inebriation. The process of becoming Aqua was tortuous, as was being in her fantastic outfits, the pain leading to more drinking to cope with it. Reading along, you wonder where the drive to do it was coming from. The motivation seemed to be: to prove that I can.
During a night out as Aqua, Josh ran into Jack, a male escort who shortly afterwards moved Josh into his fancy apartment. Jack was fascinated with Josh for being a fuck-up, and he did indeed seem very together himself by comparison, even though he led a strange life. A variety of mostly unattractive men paid him to realise their often bizarre s&m fantasies. Surprisingly perhaps, there was no actual sex during most of these meetings, but still this 'job' was illegal and off the books. Because of that, a big pile of money had to be simply hidden away in a closet: Jack couldn't officially exist. He was also booked occasionally for large parties - with multiple escorts - that could last for days. Some of these parties required him to take drugs, which was ultimately how he lost control and became self-destructive.
Before things took a bad turn, Jack was attentive and romantic to Josh and for a while the drunken drag queen and drugged male escort actually seemed to keep each other in a nice balance. But for Josh, coming home every day meant a possible surprise beyond the front door: there might be a pile of people having sex or a naked man tied up on the floor.
Josh describes these events with ironic detachment, the bizarre becoming oddly normal, sometimes even comforting. I love the style in which the book is written: no-nonsense, unapologetic, but self-aware and with a dry, sassy wit always at the ready. The book is a captivating glimpse into a life that seems to illustrate the Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times'. Especially if you are uptight like me, experiencing the life of a drunken drag queen is best done vicariously.
A podcast interview with Josh Kilmer-Purcell about this book can be found here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Television Review: Torchwood

Torchwood is a spin-off of Doctor Who, a British series that has a fan following as fanatic as Star Trek. It has been around since the sixties and after a long time off the air, it was recently revived to great success under the skilful guidance of Russell T. Davies, best known for creating Queer as Folk (the original UK version). Doctor Who is about a time traveller from another world, who jumps back and forth saving the universe, with blatant disregard for the butterfly effect and on a fairly low special effects budget. In the second season of the current revival, the Doctor ran into Queen Victoria, who set up an organisation to keep an eye out for this strange character. Scrabble players may note that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who. Torchwood quickly broadened its scope to secretly studying all sorts of freaky phenomena and alien encounters. There are various incarnations of the organisation in different parts of England (and - of course - in alternate realities), which are working 'outside the government, beyond the police' according to the opening credits. The Cardiff team stars in this series and they are lead by the literally immortal Jack Harness (John Barrowman) who has his own past with the good Doctor. Then there are: Gwen (a policewoman drafted into the organisation in the first episode), Toshiko (a tech wiz), Owen (a doctor) and Ianto (concierge/handyman).
Torchwood is deserving of the ‘wood’ in its title, both in the sexual meaning and with regards to the acting. When there is a choice between overacting and underplaying, the cast rarely goes for the latter. Worst offenders in this regard are unfortunately the two leads: Jack and Gwen. I like Barrowman, because the actor is an openly gay charmer, known for flashing his apparently impressive naughty bits on set. And there is an anecdote he tells with enthusiasm, about highkicking on stage towards the audience, while he had diarrhoea. Feel free to fill in the messy blanks. But as Captain Jack he often comes over as smarmy where he should be likeable. Actrice Eve Myles (Gwen) has a tough job, as her character has violent mood swings in between episodes and sometimes even within an episode. Gwen is supposed to be 'the caring one' but regularly makes bad judgement calls and can be alarmingly irrational. Nevertheless, Gwen has at least four guys who really, really fancy her over the course of the first two seasons (26 episodes).
This brings us to the topic of sex. There is a lot of it in Torchwood, but it often feels sledge hammered into the plots, as if the writers feel that it is necessary to make the show feel more ‘adult’. But when everybody seems to want to bed everybody else, things start to feel silly. In the second season there is more of a feeling of continuity to the relationships/flings in the series, but there are still the occasional lapses: in one episode Ianto (the pretty boy of the group) is crying over his recently deceased girlfriend, in the next he is shagging - hey, ho - captain Jack, who is his sex buddy. This is all the more bizarre as he was also doing it, in retrospect, while the girlfriend was still alive. And yes: Ianto is bisexual it seems, but then so is everybody else in the cast. All the main characters have had at least one encounter with someone of their own gender. Now, I like to see gays and lesbians represented on television, but it should make some psychological sense and not completely disregard continuity.
Death is also a recurring theme in Torchwood and it ends quite a few episodes on a downer. But the series has an odd concept of an afterlife: there is something, but this something is a vast darkness in which apparently nothing happens. It seems a bit half-hearted as afterlives go. However, death does kick off the most interesting storyline of the second season, starting with the apparent death of one of the main characters. The psychological consequences make for an interesting arc that is actually carried through to the finale.
Torchwood tries to be ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ while telling stories about monsters. In many ways it is the Angel to Doctor Who’s Buffy. It even ‘pays homage to’ Buffy’s concept of a Hellmouth: a pseudo-scientific rationale that is given to explain why so many strange things happen in Cardiff. The link with these series is made stronger by two welcome appearances of James Marsters (who played 'Spike' in both Buffy and Angel) in the second season, as a former lover of Captain Jack. As he jokes in the second season finale: ‘It’s all about sex with you people.’ Ironically, Torchwood feels sillier than Doctor Who, because the latter is a full-on, high adventure science fiction series where anything goes, while Torchwood makes unsuccessful grabs at realism. These only serve to make the moments when major threats are averted with some vague techno-babble stand out more. Frequent and obvious plot holes also make it hard to lose yourself in the stories.
There is a lack of coherence to the world of Torchwood, as if no one has thought the whole thing through, to bring all the elements together. Torchwood is a Top Secret organisation, but as the series goes on, apparently every single police officer has heard of them. They drive around in a big black car, semi-inconspicuous, but the windows aren’t tinted and there are bright blue lights on both sides of the front window, sure to catch everyone’s eye. Are they trying to hide themselves or to stand out? It also does not make much sense that their large underground complex is run by only five people, who are frequently the only ones standing in between the world and total disaster. The series takes a stab at addressing this by saying the Cardiff branch is estranged from the others for unspecified reasons, meaning they are on their own. Why head offices would allow a rogue branch to continue is not clear however and it makes you wonder where all the money for the high-tech gizmo's is coming from. The first season was very uneven but with the second series, Torchwood is becoming more polished: it has more of a sense of humour about itself and better continuity. In the beginning, the characters were just jumping through the hoops of the plot, being made to act in unbelievable ways. But the characters seem to be wrestling control away from the plots and gaining dominance, which is a very good thing. Torchwood is still on hiatus, but I would like to see it renewed, so that it gets a chance to reach its full potential.

Book Review: Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in Man's Prison

T.J. Parsell has written a book called Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison which tells the story of the truth behind all those 'dropping the soap in prison' jokes. Parsell was locked up in 1978 for a couple of years when he was a fairly naive 17 year old boy. His family was poor and uneducated and his crime, robbery with a fake gun, was misguided and stupid more than anything else. But even if his crime had been more severe, he did not deserve to be gang-raped early on during his stay and systematically forced into sex throughout his time in prison. Being a 'fish' (a 'first-timer' or 'new arrival' in prison slang) he was an easy target.
Many years after his release, Parsell was the president of Stop Prisoner Rape and he is currently a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. His experience in prison is rule rather than exception; that much is clear from the beginning of the book. Lock a rowdy group of men in together without a sexual release and they turn into sexual predators, the strong preying on the weak. 'Boys' are forced to find a 'man' to protect them in return for sex. This is not loving sex or erotic sex, it is a business-like transaction at best, a violent transaction at worst. If they don't find a man to protect them, they are more likely to be assaulted and raped on a regular basis. Both straight and gay 'boys' find themselves pushed into this role, or 'turned out' (to stay with prison terminology).
Parsell's story becomes more complex, because he was starting to realise that he was gay around the time that he was locked up. Just as he was beginning to be aware of sexual feelings for men, he was forced to act on them against his will. For a long time he still stayed 'in the closet' however, as there are odd double standards in prison. Very effeminate gay men, especially transvestites, are seen as precious commodities, as they are the closest a lot of the inmates will get to a 'real' woman until they are released. But if you are known to be gay, flamboyant or not, it is assumed that you won't mind having sex with pretty much any guy, meaning you are fair game. Following this logic, a heterosexual woman would want to have sex with any and all men she encounters.
Boundaries between gay and straight blur in prison. Most straight men there do not mind getting a blowjob from a guy or being on top and do not consider that to make them gay in any way. They are simply taking care of a basic need. It is a very 'down low' way of thinking. But to be on the receiving end of oral or anal sex or to masturbate a guy would make you gay and would be a blow to your manhood and reputation. Therefore the 'boys' who have been 'turned out', be they straight or gay originally, are seen as fundamentally lacking in masculinity because of what they do. Two 'boys' having sex together would not be seen as a threat to their men because it would be seen, in a deeply twisted way, as 'lesbian' sex.
Parsell's story is well-written and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of sexual politics in prison. The story gets more complex as things turn semi-romantic with his 'man' and later on in the book, Parsell falls in love for the first time with another 'boy'. Racial relations and well-intentioned but illogical laws also factor into the story. The memoir has a somewhat open ending, stopping at a point that makes narrative sense but leaves you wondering what happened during the last years in prison. There is a short follow-up, telling us what the most important people from the memoir are up to these days, but the last years in prison remain a blank spot. There is also a bittersweet correspondence between Parsell and his first real lover and a short explanation of the reason why Parsell decided to drop his previous career to become the 'poster child' for prison rape.
What I missed was a more extensive update on the state of affairs in prisons these days, many years after Parsell's incarceration. From what he does say however, the things he wrote about still go on, because the guards are lacking in numbers or turning a blind eye and because sexual offenders are not prosecuted. People's psyches are still being violated and not just their minds: rates of HIV infection among prisoners are estimated to be five to ten times higher than outside of prison. Parsell's book serves its purpose both as a gripping read and a call to action. Let's hope that the people in charge will be able to get over their secondhand shame, stop averting their eyes and start facing the problem.

Book Review: Persepolis

Running from Iran and back again - How do you find home when you don't know where your heart is?

Persepolis tells the story of a smart and rebellious girl who finds herself growing up without a place to call her own. It is the autobiographical tale of Marjane Satrapi, who put it down on paper as a black and white graphic novel and has recently converted it into an animated film. As a young girl, her parents joined protests for a republic in Iran, but when the Shah is finally dethroned and the Islamic Revolution rolls around, things go from bad to worse. A small group of Holier Than Thou's, aided and abetted by a large flock of sheep, force their strict religious beliefs down everyone's throat. All liberal elements are seen as hostile and therefore violently suppressed. Marjane's parents send her to Europe to escape the regime but without any close family to fall back on, she has trouble finding a place that feels like home. When she admits defeat and travels back to Iran, to the comfort of her parents, she doesn't fit in there anymore either. The obligatory veil, the inequality of men and women, the large posters of martyrs all over the cities and the prohibition of free expression add up to a sense of alienation. At one point she is admonished by police for trying to catch a bus because her behind makes 'obscene' movements when she runs. 'Well then don't look at my ass!!' she yells at them in exasperation. They are too stunned to arrest her. Will she stay in Iran, where any exposed skin is assumed to automatically lead to wanton lust, or will she head abroad once again?
Persepolis gives a fascinating perspective on Iran. Rather than a unified country of zealots, there are different groups and opinions within the country, even if they can't make themselves heard. Satrapi humanises the country and manages to make you smile regularly even though her story is tragic at the core, many lives being pointlessly destroyed. She published more graphic novels after Persepolis (which was originally published in two volumes) and after having read this one Embroideries, Chicken with Plums even the children’s book Monsters are Afraid of the Moon have risen to the top of my to-read list.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Movie Review: Untraceable

Untraceable is an enjoyably crappy thriller, that makes you ponder the validity of the title. The lead is a single mother who works for the FBI, researching internet crimes. She stumbles upon a site on which a kitten is tortured on a live-feed cam, while this is being discussed in an adjoining chatroom. Her boss is not too concerned about this and neither will you be, as the kitten looks obviously but un-intentionally animatronic. Watching people suffer realistically on-screen is entertainment, but animals would just be cruel. When the little sadist who runs the site moves on to people, a media-circus ensues.
His gimmick: the more people visit the site, the faster the people he tortures die. His first victim, for instance, is tied up, cut and fed fluids by drip that keep the blood from clogging, bleeding him dry. The more people watch it, the more fluids he gets: killed by hype and mob mentality.
Tracking the site and pinpointing the origin proves impossible because of some technobabble that the writers of the movie are betting will confuse you, involving switching ip's, servers, bouncy mirrors and possibly string theory. I was duly at a loss to completely follow the explanation, but wasn't quite buying that a site with a live chat-room could be set up in the way described. In any case, the killer turns out to be conveniently local and he is in fact revealed early on, turning the film from a who-dunnit into a why-dunnit. Probably not a
good idea, as the authorities aren't making much headway and the movie stalls a little until some savvy victims start mouthing clues to the camera while suffering and dying horribly. Now there's discipline for you. These clues are followed to great result, by making major intuitive leaps. And of course the hunt turns personal as the creepy killer turns his attention to the single mother and her daughter.
It is a bumpy road all the way when it comes to believability, both in motivations and logic, but it is all done capably enough to go along for the slightly nauseating ride. The climax is a let-down, as the killer suddenly experiences a major drop in intelligence and makes several bad judgement calls. The final shot of the movie was no doubt intended to be cool, even profound, but alas - it looks goofy and ends things with a laugh.

Untraceable, 2008, 100 min. USA. Director: Gregory Hoblit. Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks.

Movie Review: Juno

Juno just had sex for the first time at sixteen and finds herself with a bun in the oven. What to do: abortion or adoption? Friends and parents weigh in, but it will have to be her choice. And that first choice leads to other difficult choices that have to be made about her baby's future. Going by the plot, you might think this an after-school special, but it is a comedy and a pretty good one at that.
I had heard só many positive things about Juno that I was afraid it would let me down when I finally saw it. But while I do not completely get the hype, it is indeed an entertaining movie. It has a very liberal tone and will no doubt hit a nerve with conservatives. Teen pregnancy being portrayed in an upbeat manner is unusual, though I suppose it would have been more shocking if the story had ended with an abortion. I can imagine concerned parents foreseeing waves of knocked up teens, cheerfully shooting out babies at adoptive parents with baseball gloves. Given the rate of teen pregnancies though, it is refreshing to see a light-hearted take on the subject, maybe lifting the taboo somewhat. Admittedly, the movie is a bit tóó easy-going about what is really a major, dramatic event. The parents are slightly sarcastic but very supportive, as is the accidental father. Juno herself has only two scenes that show the deep emotional impact the situation has on her. The rest of the time she is a wise-ass, as wilfully alternative as the Indie soundtrack that pervades the movie. Her dialogue is often funny but a bit artificial, which keeps reminding you she is a character.
Juno - the movie - never quite feels realistic either; the script is too lovingly, neatly crafted for that. But because of a charming cast, you end up not caring about that. Simmons and Janney are a lot of fun as Juno's parents and Jennifer Garner pulls off a nice and subtle piece of acting, our feelings about her morphing over the course of the movie even though her character remains pretty much the same. There is one scene in particular that is brilliantly done, in which she talks to Juno's unborn baby by way of her stomach. You start out cringing at it but by the end you want to just give her a great, big hug. Especially if you just got accidentally knocked up, don't miss this movie. At the very least it will cheer you up a little.

Juno, 2007, 96 min. USA. Director: Jason Reitman. Starring: Ellen Page, Micheal Cera, Jason Bateman.

Movie Review: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem delivers exactly what was advertised, no more, no less. While the title characters duke it out in a small town in America, plenty of humans - often entirely defenceless - get caught in the fray and are duly slaughtered in a variety of nasty ways. Be it by skinning, beheading by jaws, impregnation or acid spray. And during its relatively short run time, there is indeed plenty of running to avoid all these nasty possible endings. The cast consists entirely of relatively unknown actors, which is more fun in the beginning as you can't guess by star status who will survive and the order in which the victims will perish. As the focus is split over multiple characters, it is also not clear for a while who will be the Sigourney Weaver in this chapter - the smart and tough lady who will end up kicking some butt. Though to be honest, this movie's Sigourney never reaches her full potential and lets a man fill in for her. There are quite a few narrative dead ends in the story, mostly ended by death. The movie is brutal in killing off innocent people, women and children not exempted. Thankfully we are not all that invested in any of them, as not much time is given to make them more than a basic character outline. The dialogue is flat and thankfully sparse and the way the plot flows serves its purpose in keeping the action going continuously and keeping you curious about the next bit of bloodshed.
I am not spoiling anything in saying that an Alien-Predator hybrid appears in this movie, which follows off directly from the end of the previous flick in the series. I guess one would call him an Alienator? Apart from looking unique, I am not clear on the ramifications of this crossbreeding, as the movie doesn't show the difference that much, though it does give the Alienator a neat and disgusting new way to make babies. Much of the inter-species fighting is done in semi-darkness, which is atmospheric as hell, but makes it hard to see what is going on at points.
I will refrain from poking at too many of the holes in the plot, but a couple won't hurt. Why is an empty helicopter left behind conveniently on the roof of an evacuated hospital? How do the Aliens build large parts of a hive in what couldn't have been more than an hour or two? And what is up with the variable gestation time of the Alien embryos? Why does it take so long for those helicopters to arrive later in the movie? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. In short: an efficient and brainless scifi horror movie, that has a sequel shamelessly built into the last scene.

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem, 2007, 86 min. USA. Directors: Colin & Greg Strause Starring:Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz.

Television Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

I love time travel stories, even though they generally drive me nuts. The first Terminator movie made fictional sense: something bad came out of the future and this future could not be avoided because - in a sense - it had already happened. When they apparently DID avoid this future at the end of the second movie, the logical thing to happen would have been a total reboot: Sarah back at the diner as a waitress. No Terminators, no son, no nothing. Because those events in the two movies ultimately wouldn't have happened and had been undone, you see? Back to the Future showed this effect at work, Michael J. Fox slowly fading out (though you'd think it would be more like an instant *plop*) when he messed with his past / his parents' future. But that trilogy threatens to make me go off on a long ramble about the butterfly effect, so let's get back to the Terminator saga.
By the third movie, the human-machine war starts - and it seems to be at the forefront of an upcoming new movie trilogy of the franchise. But now we also have the television series, which must be an alternate reality, as Sarah Connor sidesteps her death - as mentioned in the movies - by a jump from our recent past into present day. She is helped by a reprogrammed Terminator, who looks like a sweet girl. This machine is driven by curiosity and cold reasoning, fascinated by human behaviour while letting nothing keep her off her goal of protecting John Connor, the future leader of the rebellion. The fembot is played very well by Summer Glau, who previously showed off her kookiness in Firefly and in this role gets to kick quite a bit of ass. John and Sarah Connor unfortunately aren't all that interesting so far. Sarah is strong and stoic, but lacks charm, while James seems more a surly teen than a potential leader. Their main goal in the series is still to avoid the war which already became a reality in the movies.
There is a fair amount of 'reinterpretation' of Terminator lore here: where it once seemed there were only two models of Terminators - both made in large quantities - there are now a lot of them with different faces. On top of that, I think the first movie stated that only one man and one machine could be sent back in time. The second movie already messed with that statement and this series throws it completely out of the window: multiple machines and multiple humans travel back in time to suit the plot. This makes for major cause-and-effect headaches, such as: doesn't messing with the past on this scale change the future in itself, especially considering the previously mentioned butterfly effect (meaning: any minor change will have major consequences)? And if the Terminators didn't find themselves blinked out of existence after sending the first machine back, why send a second one? Didn't Sarah obviously fail to avoid the war? And why does Sarah want to avoid that future even though it likely means that her son will cease to be? Alternatively, in the case that changing the past doesn't erase the future but results in the creation of an alternate timeline, why bother going after someone in the past who can't affect 'your' reality? Is your head hurting yet?Apart from the special effects budget, I have to wonder why the improved, liquid metal Terminator model has not shown up yet. Is the future saving him as a last resort? And why wouldn't the last resort be sent back to an earlier point in time, as you don't have to be linear when time-travelling? It is somewhat worrying that all this shaky logic is at the core of the plot, but not being discussed. Maybe the show-runners are just stalling to be able to come up with a coherent explanation. The only way to enjoy the series is to let go of all reasoning, just watch the action and not ponder any of it. As it stands, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles serves as a run-of-the-mill action series with average writing that will need to find a way to stand out from the competition, aside from its affiliation with the Terminator franchise.

Game Review: Phoenix Wright: Justice for All (NDS)

Phoenix Wright: Justice for All is the middle part of a trilogy of games that were ported from the Game Boy Advance for the Nintendo DS. In all three games, you play defence attorney Phoenix Wright and have to get a 'not guilty' verdict for your clients by doing research, gathering evidence, picking apart testimony in court by cross-examination and by presenting evidence at the appropriate moments. An overarching story serves to string the separate cases together, concerning your colleagues, rivals and friends.
The presentation is fairly simple but effective: in front of backdrops of certain locations like Wright's office, the courtroom or the scene of a crime, characters pop up - drawn in manga-style - who you can chat with. They are fairly limited in their animation, having only a couple of signature expressions each and some standard 'moves' that sometimes make little sense when people start appearing at several locations. For instance, a dignified lady sips a cup of tea, which seems right when we see her at home, but gets silly when she is later seen sipping the same cup of tea on the witness stand. The design is deeply charming however and though the cases might be grim - all of them are murders - the game revels in coming up with outlandish people and funny scenarios. One case involves circus people, another one spirit channelers and yet another costumed television Ninjas. The smart balance of seriousness and oddness is what makes the game so addictive. And though the solution to most of the cases is very unlikely, it does make sense within the context of the game.
At first I was a little put off by how little influence you seem to have on the story. Though there is ultimately a 'good' ending and a 'bad' ending, this is the result of one single decision to be made during the final case. And even here you can just skip back in the story to find the 'good' ending. With the help from an occasional hint from an online walkthrough, there is no way you will not be able to finish this game. So you are pretty much just following along with the story, trying to find the right logical action to advance it. Sometimes you will have to go with a hunch, but often a bit of reasoning will keep you from getting stuck. By shouting 'Hold it!' or 'Objection!' into the DS microphone you can press witnesses on their statements - or you can just push a button instead, so you won't have to embarrass yourself on public transport. You will likely end up always pressing witnesses on everything they say. At best it will further your case and at worst it will give you some amusing dialogue in which you get made fun of. I felt a little thrown out of the games at times, as Wright - who is supposed to be you - can suddenly go off on an unexpected tangent when you present evidence, which you picked for a different reason. Vice versa, you can be on - what turns out to be - the right track but have trouble finding the right combination of testimony and evidence to get your point across. Being penalised because the game doesn't understand you, gets frustrating at points. Another nitpick is that during the investigations, characters have repeated standard replies when questioned about irrelevant people or evidence. These take too long to zap through every time you hit on them. Some of the music - which is tied to specific characters or locations - also gets a little repetitive. The stories and cast are very engaging and there is a lot of fun to be had in slowly uncovering the bizarre truth behind a case, as it twists and turns. Though each of the four cases in this volume will take you one or two long afternoons to get through, you will have trouble putting it down. After I finished, it felt like I just read a good book and I was left hungry for more. Just a tip though: as the story arcs throughout the three games, I would advise playing them in sequence: Ace Attorney, Justice for All and then Trials and Tribulations. The last one seems to be the best one - going by reviews - so the story ends on a high note. A new entry in this genre, especially developed for the DS, has also just come out: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. It makes more use of the touch screen and promises to be as good as its predecessors. Look online for the Flash interactive trailer! Court adjourned.

Book Review: Books with Mental Issues

I seem to have accidentally run into a recurring theme in the books I have been reading lately: mental issues. I am choosing to see this as a fluke rather than a cosmic warning, but it is interesting nonetheless. In Running with Scissors the narrator is actually the most sane person in the book. It is a memoir of writer Augusten Burroughs' childhood. During the seventies, his mentally unstable mother ditched him with her psychiatrist in a messy, filthy house where he ends up having a fling with a paedophile. The psychiatrist knows and approves of this, but then he also thinks God is speaking to him through his faeces. He is a mental patient with a license, diagnosing other mental patients. The book consists of stories starring Augusten's crazy adoptive family and makes you convinced people should have to pass an exam to be parents. The writer was not surprisingly sued by his adoptive family after the book appeared, claiming he made a lot of it up. A settlement was reached, though Burroughs still holds to his version of events. In any case, his memoir is an amusing and at times baffling read.

In Running with Scissors, Augusten's brother is diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, which is what the writer of the next book I read also has. The title is Born on a Blue Day, which illustrates one aspect of Asperger: synaethesia, a cross-wiring of the senses. People with the syndrome strongly associate shapes and colours with numbers and words. For the rest they share symptoms with people with autism. They have trouble reading people's expressions, need a lot of structure and routine and some of them are capable of astonishing things like complicated calculations from the top of their head, done in seconds. A lot of these people can't live an independent life, but Daniel Temmet is thankfully 'high functioning', so he manages to. Through his memoir he gives some insight into his mind and how it works. It is a fascinating book, even if his writing can get a little dry and I zoned out during some of the bits about numbers. You end up imagining what it would be like to have a brain that works so much more efficient in some ways, but in others handicaps you.
The next book I am reading is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a novel said to be written from the perspective of someone with autism, specifically Asperger. There is some controversy about this interpretation, so his condition is not official, but comparisons were made in reviews to the autistic lead character from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Both books are written from the point of view of a sensitive young boy who goes on an investigation and both titles have some drawings and textual experimentation. Extremely Loud is a love-it or hate-it sort of book from what I heard, so I'm curious to see which camp I will land in. I suspect I will like it, as I loved Haddon's book.

But maybe I need to take a break from autism first. Sit down and watch a movie. I hear Rain Man is pretty good...

Book Review: Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star

Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star sounds like the kind of book you would read with one hand in your lap. But this is not the case - for better or worse, depending on your expectations. It is the autobiography of Rich Merritt, better known in xxx-rated circles as Danny Orlis. Rich initially ended up in the news as the anonymous source for a New York Times cover article that made big waves when it was published in 1998. It illustrated the difficulties of being a gay marine with the American navy, forced to live a double life due to their 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.
His real identity wasn't too hard to figure out for people who knew him personally and when The Advocate discovered that Rich had starred in a couple of porn movies while in the service, they did not hesitate in making it public knowledge, causing another scandal.
The book starts at this point in time and then regresses to Rich's childhood, suffering under a highly religious regime at the Bob Jones University. Rich has plenty of material to pick from: a masturbation virgin until his twenties, in denial about being gay until his mid-twenties, his double life with the marines, ill-advised outings into the worlds of stripping and porn, clinical depression, suicide attempts and an addiction to pills and booze.
While there are too many uninteresting details in the book, and a fair amount of pages should have been culled, his story is fascinating even if the style in which it is written won't blow you away. Rich shows himself to be impulsive and eager to please, sometimes arrogant but at other times charmingly open, like when he admits to having had a premature ejaculation problem. By the end of the book he seems to think he now has his life well and truly back on the rails, but as a reader you are left wondering if he could not go off-track again in the future. For the moment things are going well, however: in January he published his first novel: Code of Conduct. Making use of his insider knowledge, he tells the love story of two marines circa 1993, when Clinton was promising to abolish the army's 'shush' policy on gays. It looks to be an interesting and historically accurate read.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd as filmed by Tim Burton plays like the demented flipside to Moulin Rouge!, sharing the stylised sets, the flashy zooms, the bigger-than-life acting and the overwhelming melodrama. This is not a bad thing. The story: a barber takes revenge on the judge who
sabotaged his marriage, locked him up and took his daughter. He hooks up with a woman who is down on her luck and runs a meat-pie shop. As the movie is based on a Stephen Sondheim musical, lots of singing ensues, while the blood starts spraying and the bodies start piling up. The highlight is a musical number in which the couple goes gloriously around the bend, coming up with a cunning recycling scheme for their victims. Less engaging are the numbers and scenes involving the misplaced daughter and her doe-eyed suitor: insanity and evil-doing proves itself to be much more interesting than innocence and virtue.
The cast is great. Sacha Baron Cohen (aka 'that Borat guy') catches a lot of laughs for his silly performance as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, bending the tone of the movie, but stopping just short of breaking it. Alan Rickman pulls off another sneering 'Snape' performance with glee. Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter make the Harry Potter reunion complete, Carter looking very much like her Bellatrix Lestrange character from Potter world. She does a great job of providing the movie with some much needed lightness and heart as the dangerously loopy Mrs. Lovett. Johnny Depp is intense and single-minded but manages to keep Sweeney interesting and borderline sympathetic. I don't know the plot of the original musical, so I can't say if anything was changed, but the ending as it stands seems fitting. With this much bloody murder going on, it can only end in tears.
There is also a twist near the end that I saw coming a mile away, but not so the two people I was with, so judge for yourself if it is obvious or very clever. The moral of the story is: kids, don't let vengeance ruin your life. Also: don't get shaved by strangers and only eat meat at places you trust.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007, 116 min. USA/UK. Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Movie Review: Shutter (They are Around Us)

If you're ever visiting an Asian country, beware of vengeful pale women or little girls with runny mascara and long black hair. They seem to be all over the place these days, with a morbid fascination for multimedia. They're making prank phone-calls, showing up in the static on your tv, ghoulishly abusing the internet or haunting videotapes.
In Shutter one of these specimens is getting freaky with photographs and generally messing with the perception of the recently graduated youngsters she terrorises. They might actually be to blame for her current deceased condition - or not. I don't want to spoil the plot and going by this little genre, ghosts don't always need a reason to pick a specific person. Sometimes they are just mean, dead, pissed off and lashing out at whoever crosses their path. In this case, a photograph-happy couple with their own darkroom becomes the focal point for the apparition's anger.
There isn't much new about Shutter. The mood is quiet and morose, the colours are a bit drained and the lighting - or lack of it - is impeccable. Occasionally there is a jump scare with a loud musical cue. The frequency of these increases near the end until both you and the characters get very edgy because any one break in a shot could mean a sudden cut to a scary face appearing into frame. It's only this none-too-subtle 'boo' factor that keeps things from getting boring. There is also a neat, creepy twist at the ending, but it's one of those that does not make a whole lot of sense looking back on the rest of the movie. Mostly recommended if you haven't seen many of these 'creepy girl' movies or if you are next to a date who scares easily and who you want to grab you tight. Shutter is currently being remade in the US, headlining Joshua Jackson of Dawson's Creek fame.

Shutter (They Are Around Us), 2004, 97 min. Thailand. Directors: Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom. Starring: Ananda Everingham, Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, Achita Sikamana.

Movie Review: The Kite Runner

We sell the book (by Khaled Hosseini) at the store I work at, it came highly recommended by reviewers and still I managed to put off reading it long enough for someone to make a movie out of it. I didn't originally go for the book because it seemed to be one of those worthy 'Oprah Book Club' novels in which Big Life Lessons are learned. In the movie version this is indeed the case, but I enjoyed it regardless.
Two boys in Afghanistan (Amir and Hassan) befriend each other and have a strange master-slave dynamic because there is a difference in class status. They spend a lot of time flying kites and there is a competition - which I had never heard of before - in which whoever manages to take down the most other kites wins. This happens by cutting the thread of the opponent's kite, in a way I am still not quite clear on. When something horrible happens after one of these competitions, it breaks up the friendship of the two boys. Amir, the 'master' of the two, behaves horribly to Hassan because of complex but childish feelings. Many years later, Amir is given the chance to redeem himself by rescuing Hassan's son, who has been taken by the Taliban.
The cinematography and the acting are high quality. The movie successfully puts you in a different time, a different place and tells a beautiful story. The only problem is that it tries to tie everything together too neatly, giving the tale a slightly artificial feel. It also leaves one or two interesting aspects of the story untold. But the fact that you would like to find out even more about the secondary characters in a story, can only mean that it really engaged you to begin with. The two child-actors were forced to flee the country after the movie was released. Tragic, but not surprising considering the way the Taliban are portrayed here. It is of course shameful that the Taliban's reputation has been soiled by this movie, as in reality they are of course a warm and cuddly bunch, with hardly any genocidal tendencies at all.

The Kite Runner, 2007, 122 min. USA. Director: Marc Foster. Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Movie Review: I am legend

The world gets hit by a virus - a mutation from a manmade cure for cancer - that changes most of the Earth's population into crazed, violent, flesh-eating monsters who can't stand sunlight. Will Smith plays Robert Neville, the last survivor in New York City and maybe the world, a scientist who is dedicated to finding a cure in a little laboratory under his home. He has been at it for a couple of years and is going a bit odd, talking to mannequins he set up around town. Only his dog keeps him company on his trips around town for food, infected test subjects and the occasional dvd. He broadcasts to potential other survivors, calling them to a specific location, but without response. Lions and gazelles roam the streets during the day. At night Neville locks himself into his house as the mutated population comes out of hiding and hunts for their own version of food.
The beginning of the movie impresses the most, vividly painting the picture of Neville's lonely, desperate existence in a desolate city. I am Legend is at its best when nothing much seems to be happening. Later on, Neville gets unexpected company and quite a bit of explosive action ensues. We see the monsters more often and more clearly and that was probably a mistake. They don't look real and especially in some of the crowd scenes, you get thrown out of the movie and feel like you are watching a computer game. The ending serves its purpose in wrapping up the story, but there are also one or two unlikely coincidences that had me rolling my eyes. I would have preferred the movie to stay understated and a bit more 'realistic'. But it can definitely be recommended as a good popcorn movie.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Back in the Future: 80's Nostalgia

It's a great time to be in your early thirties and nostalgic for the entertainment from your childhood. A 'proper' Ghostbusters sequel is in the making, in the form of a computer game, with the original cast providing the voices and the story. The Goonies might get a follow-up in the form of an animated series on the Cartoon Network. And an animated sequel to the The Dark Crystal is currently in production, due for 2009. Manga publisher Tokypop is adding to the fun with two recently published titles: Legends of the Dark Crystal and Return to the Labyrinth. For those unfamiliar with Manga: they are smaller-but-thicker comics in black and white, which have a somewhat shared style of drawing, with a Japanese origin.
One volume has so far been published of the Dark Crystal series, which is in fact a prequel as it takes place before the movie. It's the Gelfling versus the evil Skeksis and Garthim, though the outcome seems predestined. Again a young Gelfling couple-to-be leads the way, making it feel a bit too familiar and I am not sure if the story will be able to surprise me, but it is well-drawn with a lot of detail and certainly worth a read for fans. Return to the Labyrinth is an actual sequel, picking up with Toby - the abducted baby from the movie - now a teen and finding himself drafted to lead the nutball Labyrinth as a successor to David Bowie - sorry, I mean Jareth the Goblin King. But there are hidden agendas yet to be uncovered, and older sister Sarah seems likely to join the fray, going by the end of the most recent volume (#2). The human characters don't look at all like their movie counterparts - likely due to legal reasons - but the silly and rambling tone of the movie is well-reproduced here, even if the humour is lame in places.
Fans of comics will also be able to relive their youth through omnibus collections from both Marvel and DC. Marvel calls their line Essential (Essential X-men, Fantastic Four and so on) while DC has dubbed theirs Showcase Presents. Each volume contains reprints of a lot of old issues in black-and-white. The colours have fallen by the wayside to cut down on costs, but that is a small price to pay for - well - paying such a small price. And as owners of the original issues can attest, comics colouring in days of yore wasn't very impressive yet anyway.
As for more recent nostalgia, I can't resist a quick plug for Buffy: The Long Way Home, the official continuation ('season 8') of the television series now out in trade paperback, written by none other than series creator Joss Whedon. Good stuff and 'entirely pointy'!
(By the way - all the book links here are to the site of the store I work at. If you are abroad, you might find them cheaper locally.)