Monday, September 05, 2011

The 2011 Summer Screen Review (Part V)

I managed to squeeze in one more film before Labour Day was through. It's another that I've been sitting on, waiting for the time when I was in the proper frame of mind.

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire was disturbing, saddening, hopeful, and beautiful. Mo'nique puts in a powerful, Oscar-winning performance as Precious's abusive mother, and I felt a curious desire to give Mariah Carey (usually glammed out for every public appearance) kudos for allowing herself to strip every ounce of glamour away for her role as a social worker. The cast of girls in Precious's class were spot-on, and Gabourey Sidibe makes a pretty incredible debut as the title character. Watching a segment of her audition tape as a DVD extra makes it clear what a find the producers had before filming of the movie even began. A difficult, wonderful film.

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #10: The Finale

I doubt I'm going to finish any of the books I'm reading before the end of the day (including, The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind, and The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser, among other things), so here's the official photo of my summer reading!

Now comes the challenging task of figuring out where to put this collection on my numerous -- but generally jam-packed -- bookshelves.

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #9

Two more books to add!

Several years ago I picked up and read Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. I hadn't realized at the time that it fell several books into a series. I still read it, filling in the essential blanks using clues within the text (how's that for teacher talk?) and enjoyed the book immensely. It seemed appropriate, naturally, to go back and start at the beginning, and that's what I did this summer, reading The Eyre Affair, book one in the Thursday Next series.

Oh, how to describe this book? Imagine a world (a 1985, specifically), in which Dodos have returned as housepets thanks to cloning, in which the English and Russians are at war over the Crimea, The Goliath Corporation holds suspicious power over politics, and disturbances in the time-space continuum sometimes occur along the highway. Even better, works of art and literature are like pop-stars, with rabid fans but also inspiring criminal masterminds to attack them. Oh, that's just the tip of the iceberg. So much absurd fun!

I also read Amulet: Book Four - The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi. I reported briefly on the first book in the series as part of my first ever Summer Reading Spectacular entry. A kid-friendly fantasy series, I'm still enjoying the series, though the sparse dialogue makes for a very quick read, leaving me feeling, at times, that I'd like the story to make more progress in a given volume. The artwork is quite nice, with backgrounds particularly impressive in their detail and beauty contrasted with very simple, flat character designs. Characters can also look a lot alike -- the facial design is very simple and used often -- so pay attention to hair and clothing to help keep everyone straight. I'm not sure how long this series is expected to last, but word has it a movie is in the works.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #8

Not far from the finish line for another summer...

First up in this entry, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. The final entry in the Hunger Games trilogy, it was a satisfying conclusion to the series, though I can't deny that the love triangle thread (between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale) has become a bit tiresome by the time we reach the halfway point in this, the third book in which it figures. I was unbothered by the unresolved pieces of the puzzle (I'm not a fan of everything being too tidily resolved, at the best of times). All told, it's a young adult series worth reading, and adults will find it an enjoyable light read, too. I'm hoping the film adaptation doesn't mess it up. Previews look good, at least.

Another issue of The Believer (No. 82 -- The Music Issue) was completed early in August. Who knew that they tried putting turntables in car dashboards in the 60s (other than those who were looking to buy luxury cars in the 60s)? Where else would an article about the bassoon (and its reputation as the orchestral comedian) be entitled 'The Farting Bedpost'? Did you know that KPOP (Korean Pop Music) had a rabid fanbase that would make Beatlemaniacs blush? Good times (with bad comics, again).

Showcase presents The Flash, after a shelf-sitting hiatus, came back into the reading circulation and was finished at last. A collection of black-and-white reprints from the 60s (over 500 pages' worth!), it is highly amusing to see how the tone of comics has changed since the Silver Age. Apart from a general sense of camp in the storytelling, it's also entertaining to see how the prevalence of "radiations" of all sorts reflects the times.

Keeping in the comics genre, I re-read the graphic novel Batman: Dark Joker - The Wild, an Elseworlds story from 1993. I'd pretty much forgotten the whole thing until I unearthed it while sorting things from the basement in the Spring. While the concept is intriguing (in a Medievalesque fantasy land, Dark Joker is a powerful and evil wizard; the Batman is the disfigured hero who will bring about his fall), the storytelling itself isn't quite as strong as I would like. The artwork, on the whole, is quite nice, though, with a little gore to spare.

The 2011 Summer Screen Review (Part IV)

Okay, there's no way this will make me appear cool, but I did see Glee: The 3D Concert Movie with Sonya. A combination of stage footage, improvised backstage shenanigans by the cast (in role as their Gleeful characters), and fan stories and interviews, it was an enjoyable enough afternoon at the movies. There was some lip syncing, some singing, and lots of dancing and hey, that can be reasonably happy-making, right?

Out of the proverbial frying pan and into the metaphoric fire, I watched the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which I picked up in a cheap bin. I'd seen it sometime in the 90s, but remembered little (and wasn't really that impressed at that time), but thought I'd give it another go-round, expecting to be amused rather than frightened. My expectations were met. There's really nothing very scary about the movie, to be honest, but Wes Craven does create a few nice images (particularly the face in the wall). Wow, though, Heather Langenkamp wasn't much of an actor, was she? Perhaps she's improved since then...

Still think it's curious and inappropriate that the 80s saw a whole whack of Freddy Kruger toys and children's costumes...

In June I was given the gift of Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season One. For some reason, I had semi-actively avoided watching this show for a decade or so. Little did I know what I was missing! If Seinfeld and Britain's The Office were put into a blender and set to blend, you might get Curb Your Enthusiasm. Social awkwardness and everyday irritants abound. Thanks, Sean!

In the more classic television vein, I also finished watching Benson: The Complete First Season. I watched this show all the time back when it was on and was pleasantly surprised to find it still enjoyable today. I'd completely forgotten that Rene Auberjonois didn't arrive until the second season. Can't lie, I preferred him to Taylor (his equivalent in the first season). Other little unexpected tidbits? I looked up Inga Swenson (who played Krauss) on YouTube and who knew that she was a cutie back in her young days as a performer in Broadway musicals? Also, it occurred to me that Benson and I might be cut from the same sarcastic cloth.

Have you noticed how often I watch things I found in the cheap bin? Exit Speed was another such pick. I bought it because it starred Lea Thompson (of Caroline in the City, Back to the Future fame and Howard the Duck infamy). Very clearly direct-to-video fare, it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. There's not much story here (bus passengers have a run-in with a trick-riding biker gang that apparently like to pick violent fights at random and end up holed up in a junk yard trying to keep the bikers at bay) but it moves along nicely, the stock characters at least have things to do, and the filmmakers have no qualms about killing off significant characters. Having cast stunt performers as most of the bikers, the filmmakers also decided to make the villains wordless. Brilliant? Of course not. Enjoyable enough for a mindless action romp? Sure.

Oh, and I recognized one of the actors, but couldn't figure out from where. He won the Tony Award for his work on Broadway as Billy's father in Billy Elliot. Go figure.

Finally (and then I'll be caught up on the Summer Screen Review, just in time for its finale), I sat down to watch Catfish, after having it in wait for a couple of months. Billed as "The Real Facebook Movie", it's a documentary following a young man and his developing online friendships and relationship with members of a family halfway across the country. Curiously fascinating and with more moments of pathos than I expected, it certainly isn't the "thriller" that promotional materials made it appear, but that's actually a good thing, in the end.

As of this moment, that's the Summer Screen Review up-to-date! If I've missed anything (or watch something tonight), I'll wrap it up tomorrow, because it's Labour Day in a few hours!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #7

Well, I thought I was getting close to caught up, but here I am, having fallen behind yet again. I've got three days to finish up, because it's almost Labour Day! Yikes!

Juxtapoz: Issue 127 was more of what I enjoy from the magazine, art and artists with whom I'm generally unfamiliar. Though I think the magazine may focus too frequently in graffiti artists from month to month, I particularly enjoyed the articles about Emek, a poster designer/graphic artist, and Mary Iverson, who draws shipping containers on landscape photos, and the interview with Gus van Sant.

Among my lighter reads this summer was Pop by Gordon Korman. Korman has been trying to branch out a bit in recent years, experimenting more frequently with adventure serials (Island, Everest, etc.) and with more "young adult" novels (Son of the Mob, Born to Rock), and Pop falls into this latter category. While it's not as whimsical as Korman's earlier teen novels (Don't Care High, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, in particular), it was still a decent, light read.

Marcus moves to a new town with his mother and finds himself dealing with the politics of the local High School Football team. He is buoyed, if stymied, by the unexpected friendship of an eccentric, middle aged man he meets in the park and who ends up participating in Marcus's informal training. When the nature of his new friend begins to come to light, Marcus finds his life more complicated than he'd first realized.

Back to a magazine (my favourite magazine, incidentally), Issue 81 of The Believer was another eclectic and enjoyable read. Highlights of this issue included "The Forefather of Charm", an article about the Genuine Fakir of Ava, a magician with a knack for enticing audiences with the promise of prizes (and to whom shows like The Price Is Right owe a debt of gratitude, I'm sure), and an interview with photographer Lena Herzog. A low point, as always, were the stupid comics, which are not generally insightful, witty, or funny. The magazine is so wonderful that the comics always make me a little sad.

Later in the summer, I read yet another issue of The Believer, which I'll get to mentioning before Monday leaves us.

Dexter is Delicious, fourth in the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, was next on the completion list. An enormous step up from the third in the series, which went off the rails, in my opinion, it seemed that Dexter was getting back on track story-wise. Though I still think the character seems to be pretty consistently sloppy for someone who has been established as obsessively careful and systematic, I generally liked where things went. Though I'm not sure that I'll be able to "buy" where things are headed with elements of Dexter's happy home life, I'll still be picking up the next book when it's out in paperback.

The 2011 Summer Screen Review (Part III)

Having been watching more TV on DVD than anything else, a few movies have snuck into the mix, mostly at home, but occasionally on the big screen.

Having finished reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was able to watch the Swedish film of the same name. Though less effective an adaptation than The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, it was still a decently executed film which does an admirable job of streamlining the book's complicated details. Gone is some of the tension of the book, along with a shuffling and compacting of timelines, but the changes have the feel of having been thought-out and deemed necessary to bring the book to the screen. As before, the cast is impeccably assembled (or reassembled, in the leads' cases) and apart from one glaringly obvious technical/factual flaw (which was an odd substitution for a moment in the book, anyway), the film holds itself together nicely. I'm waiting on the final book to be released in the paperback size to match the two on my shelves so I can read it and then view the final Swedish movie, which already lies in wait in my living room.

Onto much less reputable fare, I picked up the notoriously bad Masters of the Universe DVD, starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. I'd seen it before, many years ago, but upon finding it in the cheap bin, I couldn't resist the trainwreck I remembered it to be. The biggest problem with the movie from the get-go is that the script fails where so many adaptations of cartoons and "old school" shows fail: it betrays the very core concept of the show. Presumably in the interests of saving a whole lot in set construction and location work, the filmmakers transport He-Man and company into modern day America for the majority of the story, in search of a Cosmic Key (which is, in itself, a ridiculously conceived object, a technological portal-opener that happens to play like a synthesizer). Abandon Battlecat (who is never mentioned) and essentially replace the mildly annoying Orko with the VERY annoying Gwildor, stick everyone on a distinctly 80s Earth and, combined with a hundred other flaws, you've got a hot mess of a movie, it still can entertain a little for all the wrong reasons. It's also fun to see Courtney Cox in her pre-friends days, hoping, I'm sure, that this will be her big break.

On the animated front, I watched Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, part of Warner Brothers' DC Animated Universe line. Based on a graphic novel, the movie's storyline centres around Superman being framed by the newly-elected US President Luthor and his battle, alongside ally Batman, to clear his name and save the world from destruction. You know, the usual. Despite the misfires that seem to occur with big screen adaptations of DC properties (Catwoman, anyone? Superman Returns? Joel Schumacher ever having anything to do with a comic book movie?), the DC animated adaptations -- starting with the 90s Batman: The Animated Series -- are generally pretty strong, even if they stray significantly from the source material. This one isn't their strongest, but it's a decent animated flick nonetheless.

The Summer 2011 Stage Review (Part IV)

Wow. Where has the summer gone? I'm way behind once again. Luckily (for writing purposes), August has been less filled with theatre, so I only have a few things to catch up about here.

Office Hours at the Port Mansion Theatre (Lakeside Players)
Back at the end of July, I saw Office Hours at the tiny Port Mansion Theatre, a very fun little venue in which to perform and view shows. I'll be the first to admit that the apparent popularity of Norm Foster is, to a great degree, lost on me. Sure, he tosses in some great comedic lines, but I don't necessarily find his shows (as a body of work) overly funny or original -- particularly when placed side by side, when their similarities one to another become glaringly evident. That said, I think Office Hours was one of my best Foster viewing experiences. The show, made up of five short segments stitched together with common story threads, generally worked well, though a couple of segments simply don't have enough forward movement to make them essential to the bigger picture. Nice work on stage, though, and some good laughs made the evening quite enjoyable.

Sea of Sand on Spanish Banks West Beach in Vancouver (The Only Animal)
The concept here -- to perform a piece of theater using the beach and ocean as set -- is intriguing, but the end result was a bit washed out. The story, involving an amnesiac piecing back together his own back story in relation to two women -- one his wife and the other a mystery woman who came from the sea -- seems a bit try-too-hard and doesn't have the teeth it thinks it has. The use of pre-recorded dialogue, played on loudspeakers on the beach, could have worked, though the sometimes-live dialogue that overlapped it again seemed a bit "artsy" without real clear purpose. The event is what makes the show, not the show itself. It's just nice to go and sit on the sand and see some quirky little theatre piece with friends.

Les Miserables at the Fifth Avenue Theatre (Seattle)
The 25th anniversary production of Les Mis was well worth seeing. Having seen several productions of the show, it's good to know it can still keep my attention and surprise me, now and then, as well. This production stands out for two main reasons for me: the use of digitally altered and projected paintings by Victor Hugo as backdrops was surprisingly effective, and the edgiest (and slightly vicious) Mme Thenardier I've yet seen in the show. Fantastic. The kids, also, were excellent in this cast.

Come Fly Away at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts (Dancap)
Regardless of what the promotional materials say, this is not a musical; it is a contemporary ballet. I know that "Musical" will sell more tickets than "Ballet" on the Broadway touring circuit, but I take exception to the misleading nature of it. Told entirely in dance (see? ballet) with a live orchestra and prerecorded vocals by Frank Sinatra (see? not a musical), the extent of story is simply that four couples meet at a night club, fight, and then get back together. The choreography by Twyla Tharp is pretty brilliant, as is the dancing. I'm a bit thrown by how we, the audience, are meant to respond to one of the four couples' storylines, as we see a rather abusive relationship play out before they reconcile for a happy ending. Are we meant to be happy for them? I really wanted the woman to kick him in the plums and move on, not get back together for a sunny reunion. Odd...