Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #9

Earlier this week I finished On, Off by Colleen McCullough.  It was one of those books about which I felt ambivalent in the early chapters, but to which I warmed considerably once the proverbial ball was rolling.  Unbeknown to me until after I finished reading, McCullough drew upon her own experience in the fields of medicine and medical research to some extent in crafting this novel about a series of murders linked to a neuroscience facility in Connecticut.

While reading I had some reservations about some things -- McCullough's use of inventory-styled description; timelines, interviews, and interrogations which sometimes called into question the thoroughness of the police department; and the apparent willingness of the protagonist to make assumptions about suspects -- I still found myself interested in the story and, about halfway through the book, felt my reading build momentum and motivation.

While the characters aren't as well developed, on the whole, as those in recent crime thriller reads from Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, (perhaps surprising, since McCullough also wrote the character-driven Thorn Birds), they worked and sat suitably in the story.  There are shudderingly horrific revelations about the crimes, but they are handled with tact; there are sufficient clues to allow the reader to play along with the police (I managed to identify the guilty, though I was a bit frustrated that the Lieutenant took longer to grow suspicious than I, a lowly couch-detective).  In the end, my verdict is that it's a solid, if not spectacular, crime novel.

When I first heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was mildly amused and thought little more of it.  When it became a best-seller, I became more interested.  I'd read Jane Austen's novel many years ago and wondered how the added element of zombies might play out, particularly when set in the language of Austen's work among the plot which centres on nineteenth century manners, attractions, morality, and marriage.

And it was surprisingly entertaining, with the Bennet sisters well-versed in the "deadly arts" and acting as protectors of their beloved Hertfordshire community against the hoards of the living dead, or "unmentionables", even as they go about the business of calling upon neighbours and seeking out husbands.

That is to say it was surprisingly entertaining for a time.

The opening paragraph of Seth Grahame-Smith's ... let's call it an adaptation ... is quite a delightful spoof of Austin's opening.

Austen's:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Grahame-Smith's:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.  Never was this more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead."

The problem is that once going, Grahame-Smith isn't quite sure to do with the zombies.  There are a few wonderful scenes that marry this concept with the material -- a dinner party interrupted by a necessary slaughter of the undead, though a few among the living meet a bloody end along the way -- but after a point, Grahame-Smith just doesn't know what to do with the idea that he has committed to (or, more accurately, been committed to, as he was approached by the publishers to create the adaptation in the first place).  The story is more about exploiting the idea that the Bennet sisters (and Elizabeth, in particular), are masterful killing machines than about the zombie threat.  Indeed, there is a shark, and it is jumped surprisingly early in the book (on page 132, to be precise).

What started as an amusing spoof and homage to the styles of language and manners in Austen's work simply becomes arduous.  By the final third of the book, I was wishing I was just reading the original again, as it would have been more purposeful and focused.  I have no need of reading the prequel nor the sequel which have since been created by other authors sucked in by the publisher.

Finally, and most upliftingly, I read Wonderstruck, the latest marriage of text and images by Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Ben, in 1977, is mourning the death of his mother and, following an accident that leaves him deaf, becomes obsessed with finding the father about which he has known nothing.  Rose, in 1927, is fascinated by a silent film star about whom she keeps a scrapbook. The two stories, one told in words and one in images, are presented in tandem until, inevitably, they become interlaced.

Selznick's copious illustrations capture a cinematic style, making extensive and thoughtful use of framing and composition, and he's expert at storytelling with simple images.  If there is a criticism to be made, it's that he seems to have difficulty capturing movement of his human figures, and perhaps that his characters tend to be too consistently possess wide-eyed expressions, but the truth is that these are minor complaints when set within his visual storytelling.  His style is very different from that required by the usual graphic novel, where movement and activity in images take the place of most narrative text and therefore require the energy and punch to sustain the audience from cover-to-cover.

Wonderstruck is a worthy follow-up to Hugo Cabret and, while it may be a story told at a gentler pace, it breaks new ground for Selznick in structure.  It's a worthwhile read for a young audience, for certain.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The 2012 Summer Screen Review (Part V)

A few days ago, I watched The Dark Knight (not to be confused with The Dark Knight Rises) in preparation for the latter.  I found myself a bit more forgiving on a few details (the Two-Face design didn't bug me as much this time around though I still think it's too unrealistic for a film trying to be more gritty and realistic; I chose not to wonder about the origins of the secret chamber below the shipping container).  I still don't like the new bat suit or the tumbler, and the batvoice continues to be a bit overdone, but none of that stops me from recognizing what a good film it is.  Heath Ledger was gripping as The Joker, I prefer Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes to Katie Holmes's Rachel Dawes, and Gary Oldman is, as usual, fantastic.    

I'm looking forward to seeing, at some point, the final film in the Nolan trilogy.  Where from there?  I wonder if the general movie-going public is ready to swallow a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

Last night, I sat down to watch the 1988 film adaptation of The Chocolate War.  The movie had a lot going for it: a good cast of not-big-name at the time young actors as the students (Ilan Mitchel-Smith is a standout as protagonist Jerry Renault), the adult cast is decent (a cameo by Bud Cort is perfect, John Glover is a great choice for Brother Leon, but the character is a watered down version of that in the book).  Taken as a whole, however, the movie suffers because its screenwriter and director, Keith Gordon, didn't have a firm grip on what made the book so powerful.

That he's a fan of the book is not in question, I don't doubt his passion for the material, but perhaps because he was a new director, perhaps because he reread the story with the intent to adapt rather than as a reader, perhaps because he was too trusting of his actors' impulses, the film lacks the depth and impact of the original novel.  There are small ways in which this is evident (the Room 19 incident, for example, fails to translate well enough as filmed to explain the impact it has on Brother Eugene and, subsequently, on Goober), but more significantly, there are some serious misfires in characterization (Archie, Obie, Janza, Brother Leon) and story.  The altered climax and ending, which have often been misrepresented as a Hollywood "happy ending", miss the mark almost entirely.  Listening to (and reading) the director explaining the reasons for his changes confirm for me that he missed something key in the original ending.  A tag involving Archie and Obie is nearly unforgivable in its misfire, and listening to the director discuss these few minutes in an interview made my jaw drop; either he is trying to construct a more palatable rationale for this scene after-the-fact, or his thinking is a clear indication of how little he understood of Archie, Obie, and the book.  During the interview, Gordon indicates that the novel's writer, Robert Cormier, was sort of reservedly supportive of the change, in the "I see what you're going for but it's hard for me to imagine it other than how I wrote it" vein.

I won't even get into the extremely 80s soundtrack (with its own hits -- Running Up That Hill -- and misses -- most of the rest) or the moments of force "artiness".

Likely, this film falls into the ever-popular "If You Don't Know the Book, You Won't Realize Why This Doesn't Work and You Might Not Mind" category of adaptations.  I think the book could be ripe for a new adaptation, now that a quarter of a century has past and filmmakers are a bit more comfortable with discomfort.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #8

Jim Henson's Tale of Sand is a graphic novel based on an unproduced screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl back in the days before The Muppet Show launched them into international stardom.  Long buried and largely forgotten in the Henson 'vaults', it was revived and brought to life in printed form.

Canadian artist Ramon Perez has done a pretty incredible job of bringing a cinematic quality to the visual storytelling (essential, since there's minimal dialogue in the story), and it's a pretty gorgeous example of his work.  The story itself is surreal and captivating, and a great example of Henson's interests behind the puppets.  Mac, a rugged everyman, races across a desert landscape with little but his wits and a rucksack, pursued by a dapper man in an eye-patch.  (I'm still wanting to see his early experimental film works -- the Oscar-nominated Time Piece and the television project The Cube -- and this could have capped off the trilogy nicely, I'm sure.  TIFF, I'm waiting on your Henson exhibit!)

Just last week, Tale of Sand won three Eisner awards, making my reading quite timely.

The 2012 Summer Stage Review: Volume 4

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montebello Park (Driftwood Theatre)

Wait.  Let me clarify that: A Midsummer Night's Dream -- a musical adaptation by Kevin Fox, Tom Lillington, and D. Jeremy Smith.  That's important, because for whatever strengths the production had, it also had the musical element which was, to put it mildly, its utter downfall.

The show started and I thought, "How curious that there was no musical number near the beginning of this show, if it's a musical."  When Oberon appeared and started singing, I thought, "Oh, I see.  The fairies are going to sing, but the mortals will not."  Then Lysander started singing and I thought, "Oh, wait.  Now I get it.  The fairies and those under the influence of fairy magic will sing."  Then someone else sang and I just said, "Screw it.  There are no rules."

Even bigger a problem was the fact that the music didn't serve the storytelling at all.  Shakespeare's words set to meandering almost-melodies in what became a very irritating, lazy a cappella style detracted significantly from the text.  As someone familiar with the play, I was constantly groaning at the fact that wonderful humour and wit was falling flat, flat, flat as lines were stretched, bent, and forced to suit the music's cadences instead of being the focus.  Painful and arduous.

That isn't to say there were no bright points, most notably Madeleine Donohue as Helena (and doubling as Snout), whose timing, line delivery, and physicality were comedic yet true and somehow "natural" in the world created on stage.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 2012 Summer Screen Review (Part IV)

30 Rock: Season 5.  I've discussed this show before, so I won't belabour this entry.  Just let me say that it's one of the most consistently amusing and silly sitcoms on television today, and that this season is worth it for the Live Episode alone.  Ridiculously enjoyable.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #7

A while back, I rediscovered my love for Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and have been gradually collecting and reading through The Complete Peanuts, an ambitious collection of every cartoon from the strip's 50+ years.

I completed The Complete Peanuts: 1963 - 1964.  At this point in the series, the characters had been more clearly defined and their ages had been established.  (You may not recall that Lucy was introduced as a toddler, that Sally and Linus were once babies, and that Snoopy didn't always play baseball.)  This was still pre-Woodstock (though birds were recurring characters), when the only Patty was not Peppermint, and the neighbourhood had not yet been integrated with the arrival of Franklin.

The brilliance of Charles Schulz is hard to categorize.  I think it lay in a combination of many factors, perhaps most notably in taking adult understandings, anxieties, and ponderings and distilling them into the mouths of children.  Heartache and despair are as much a part of the Peanuts world as laughter, but somehow the futility of the baseball season, the unrequited love between Lucy and Schroeder (or between Charlie Brown and the Red-Haired Girl, or between Linus and Miss Othmar), and the unreliability of the Great Pumpkin still bring a smile to the reader even as these disappointments ring familiar.  Schulz is also a master of pacing, somehow using four frames (more on Sundays, of course) to communicate the perfect timing of these brief moments of story.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #6

The Flint Heart is described as "freely abridged from the 1910 story by Eden Phillpotts" by Katherine and John Paterson.  I haven't been quite able to discover exactly how much abridgement and how much rewriting has been involved, and I haven't read the original story, either (though I guess that technically I could -- it is still out there), but regardless, the authors have impressively retained the flavour of children's stories from the opening of the 20th century.

In short, the novel deals with the creation and influence of a flint heart, which hardens the heart of its owner and causes them to become callous and greedy.  Fairies, animals, kind-hearted children, and a hot water bottle made in Germany all figure into the adventure.

It's interesting that what I like most about the book may also limit its audience.  This reworking, though published in 2011, has retained the feel and voice of children's stories a century ago (and according to reviews, it's retained much of the original text, as well).  I'm not sure how the average young reader (or parent of the average young reader) today will handle the vocabulary and rather elegant turns of phrase that are largely responsible for the book's charm.

Adults may find the episodic nature of the book tiresome, but I suspect that kids will be more accepting of it.  Word is it's being adapted into a film, so I'm interested in whether that adaptation will retain the tone of the storytelling.  I'm not sure how much a more contemporary style would help (sales) or hinder (the heart) of the story.

The 2012 Summer Screen Review (Part III)

A friend and I frequently schedule Stupid Movie Night, an evening to watch movies we expect to be bad and entertainingly so.  You know, those low-budget bargain bin movies, mostly.

Lately we've been in a bit of a valley, though, with the movies being generally dull, rather than amusingly terrible.  Tonight we hit what we hope was rock bottom.

Aegri Somnia.  Oh, Aegri Somnia.

What do you get when you have a writer-director who is smitten by his own ideas for "striking visuals" and his misplaced self-confidence as an artiste?  You get a pretentious mess that seeks to be an art film, but which stumbles blindly through a warehouse of black-and-white scenes and red scenes, overwrought use of reversed film, definitively unscary 'scary' images that seem left over from a failed Marilyn Manson video shoot, and some of the worst dialogue and delivery I've ever had the mind-numbing misfortune to endure.  What seeks to be a surreal and disturbing trip through confusion and disorientation (Aegri Somnia means the dreams of a sick man, after all), only succeeds in being an arduous and laboured journey to nowhere at all.  Never have I spent so much time looking at the counter on the DVD player so frequently.  (My viewing companion suggested fast forwarding, but I felt that would be cheating -- instead I cheated myself out of 91 minutes of doing something more interesting ... like the dishes.)

A message to independent filmmakers:  enough with stilted line delivery filled with what you believe are meaningful pauses.  They're not meaningful.  Don't highlight the entire textbook.

What is astounding is the number of online horror reviewers who gave the film a passing grade, lending credence to my suspicion that independent horror filmmakers and the web-community that supports them most strongly are just an inbred group of buddies.  (I don't mean inbred as in "incestuous hill folk", I mean inbred in the sense that they all have gotten to know one another through the world of the old inter web and rather blindly give each other high fives for sub-par work.)  The visuals, which were the hanging point of most praise, were not deserving of the credit -- generally trite reworkings of familiar tropes -- and were presented in a soup of watered down stock.

An utter waste of time in every sense.

Wait.  Perhaps I had better put that in bold so nobody misses that bottom line and accidentally punishes him- or herself by watching this vapid mess.

Aegri Somnia is an utter waste of time in every sense.

After a short break to shake out the cobwebs, we decided it best to watch something that was likely to be ridiculous but nearly guaranteed to entertain:  Aladin.

No, I didn't misspell that.  This isn't the Aladdin of Disney fame, this is Aladin, big budget Bollywood spectacular!

Let me be upfront: this movie is pretty ridiculous and sometimes manic, but man is it entertaining.  It's Bollywood!  I'm not sure India has seen so much CGI (and good quality CGU, particularly for a non Hollywood production, might I add).  Throw in some good old fight scenes and some utterly hilarious musical numbers and how can you not enjoy yourself?  Come on, the genie is a rockstar named Genius with fancy suits and a fedora.  Haha!  I was completely fascinated by the bilingual nature of the script, too.  Do they really snap that quickly and frequently between Hindi and English in India these days?  Wow.

Perhaps Aladin seemed all the more entertaining because it followed close on the heels of the digital lobotomy that is Aegri Somnia.  I don't care.  I was amused, and it helped to salvage what was otherwise shaping up to be a miserable night of viewing.  Thanks, crazy Bollywood movie! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #5

I was feeling like I'm not getting as much reading done as usual, but as I typed the '#5' above, I realized I must be doing alright despite not having a hermitage to which I can escape.

Clive Barker's The Thief of Always is part Coraline and part Flight of the Navigator (though it predates the former and follows the latter), another variation on "be careful what you wish for" narratives that's done well.  In short, Harvey Swick, bored with life, is lured to a mysterious and magical house that offers to supply his every wish and whim, but he soon discovers the darker side of those delights.

It's a short, well-plotted, and quickly moving novel with just enough darkness and grotesquery to give kids the willies but not nightmares.    If there's a complaint, it's in the fact that a major turning point in the protagonist's journey seems to be based on an assumption that's a bit of a leap.  Not a big criticism, and unlikely to be one noted by the young intended audience.  In the novel, one can almost see the seeds of Barker's Abarat series as he experiments with how creepy he can go with the imagery in young people's literature.

The 2012 Summer Stage Review: Volume 2

Self Help at the Lighthouse Festival Theatre (Port Dover)
I went along to see Self Help because a friend-of-a-friend was in the cast.  It's a Norm Foster comedy, so I didn't go expecting much, which is to say I went expecting to see the same show I'd seen several times, just with different character names and in a slightly different setting.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Self Help was Foster's foray into farce which, while not necessarily a brilliant script if you think too hard about it, is at least something different.  The cast had nice energy and chemistry for the broad humour and sold the silliness convincingly.  The one moment that chemistry seemed to stumble was during a make-out session between on-stage husband and wife team, played by Stephen Savage and Melodee Finlay, in which frenetic energy didn't quite land as the intended passion.  Ah well.  Small complaint, really, for  a production that managed to keep my attention and made me smile despite being a Norm Foster show.  Stand out in the cast was Paul Brown as Detective Snow, whose physical comedy was surprisingly organic given the rather heavy-handed direction the show had received (it's certainly painted with pretty sweeping, broad strokes), not to mention summary and sometimes obvious writing.

All-in-all, it was an entertaining night at summer theatre.  Meeting with the cast afterwards, it was evident that the chemistry behind the scenes was likely a great ingredient in the show's success onstage.  A lovely group of people.