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.