Mar 6 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Last night, we went to see Tim Burton’s newest creation “Alice in Wonderland” in 3-D. There was a 2-D version available at the theater for the “No glasses for me, thanks!” crowd, otherwise known as the “$10 dollars a ticket is more than enough, thanks!” crowd. I have been a long-time fan of Tim Burton movies, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) being one of my all-time favorites. Which is why I’m sad to report, that I have also watched the overall decline of his movies over the years (exceptions: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)  and a number of films that he produced). I’m not entirely sure why that is. Burton still fills his movies with twisted and leafless Hallowe’en forests populated with strange and melancholy characters, all picking their ways through gloomy sets, and seasoned with generous dashes (gashes?) of dark humor… but somewhere between “Vincent” (1982) and today, all of these wonderfully imaginative dream-scapes became monotonous. That’s a really painful admission for me to make, because I love Burton’s artistic vision. He has a style that no one else in Hollywood can even come close to… (except perhaps Terry Gilliam) but maybe that’s because no one else needs to, because Burton has done it to death?

The movie is based on the book of (nearly) the same name by Lewis Carroll in addition to his 1872 poem “The Jabberwocky” (originally appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There“). Thirteen years after her first adventure down the rabbit hole, Alice’s only memories of Wonderland are strange recurrent dreams that have persisted into adulthood. During her second visit, she finds a blighted landscape occupied by familiar but Burton-ized characters, all living under the tyrannical rule of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hydrocephalitic Red Queen (every time I saw her I started thinking of the old Steve Madden advertisements). It is soon revealed that on Frabjous Day, Alice is destined to confront the catching claws of the Red Queen’s champion, Jabberwocky. Helping Alice along the way are a number of computer generated characters  led by Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. I must admit that I walked past the poster for this movie for several months without realizing that the iridescent eyed Hatter was Depp. When you finally hear and see him on the screen however, you realize that even five pounds of make-up, mismatched contact lenses, and a fright wig cannot disguise him. I wonder where Depp’s career would be without Tim Burton?

So, is the movie any good? It’s okay… I would rather Tim Burton had made a movie based on “Lost Girls” (1995 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie) about the erotic adventures of Alice, Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame), and Wendy (of Peter Pan renown). Not sure what Burton porn would be like but at least it would be different. Extra credit: If Mia Wasikowska (the Alice from this movie) agreed to star, I’d be in line for the sneak preview… Well, maybe not. Not sure I’d want to sit in the skeevy kind of places that show those movies. You never know when you might be sitting next to a Paul Reubens wanna-be with bad aim.

“What a regrettably large head you have. I would very much like to hat it. I use to hat The White Queen, you know. Her head was so small.” “It’s tiny. It’s a pimple of a head.” – Mad Hatter to the Red Queen with rejoinder

3.5 out of 5

Mar 5 2010


Yesterday, I finished Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale“. I have been meaning to read (or finish) this book for several years. A month ago I decided to pick it up again, start from the beginning, and read it all the way through. The underlying story is a good one (duh, it’s considered by many to be the “great american novel“) but is interrupted throughout by long discourses of whales, whaling, the anatomy of whales, the history of whales, whales in art, whale legends, whale-men (loosely defined) , sailing ships, ship minutiae, &c. While some of these digressions were interesting (I spent a great deal of time researching all the names and places mentioned), for chapters at a time I was hoping that the next few pages would kindly deposit me back into the story itself. When the story did spout again, it was interesting, but it would soon veer off to describe some other tangentially-relevant details. It was like listening to a storyteller with Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, Melville used the narrator, an educated sailor/teacher named Ishmael, to expound on all aspects of whaling, because he felt the subject was largely unknown to the public. He was determined to write a good story that was also educational. It’s also interesting to note that many of the story’s elements were based on real events.

The book follows the whaling ship Pequod around the world as the revenge-driven Captain Ahab searches the sea for the white whale Moby Dick. During the course of this ocean-spanning hunt, the reader is introduced to a number of characters including: Ishmael (narrator for most of the story), Queequeg (a south Pacific cannibal and harpooner), Ahab (ship’s captain who has forsaken all other earthly concerns for this one, soul-destroying pursuit), Pip (young black man who curiously loses his identity when abandoned to the waves), Starbuck (first mate who wrestles with thoughts of murdering Ahab so that he and ship may escape their doom), and many others. While the ending, of course, is one of the most memorable literary scenes in all American literature, the most touching scene (for me) was the abandonment of The Rachel in Chapter 128.

Much has been written about the allegory and symbolism of the story and its characters. I feel neither obligated nor capable of adding insight that hasn’t been already been elaborated upon ad infinitum. I would only suggest that having finished, readers should explore the book a little further, even if they only peruse the Wikipedia section on themes. There are a great many layers to the story and it would be a mistake not to examine those elements further.

So, what is left? I usually finish these reviews with a quote. I wanted to pick one from Queequeg, my favorite character, but there’s just too many others to choose from. I could use Ahab’s final “…to the last I grapple with thee…” but who doesn’t use that? Since I can’t make up my mind, I guess my only option is to end with a number of quotes.

“I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

“…there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

4.5 out of 5

Feb 11 2010

Bog Child

The last few days I’ve been holed up at home, watching the snow fall and drift. Other than pulling on some jeans and a top layer or two to go shoveling, I’ve stayed inside lounging about in my pajamas, working through a store of microwaveable dinners, talking on the phone about the “snow”, and reading. Last night, I started reading Siobhan Dowd’s 2008 novel “Bog Child“. Today, I finished it.

The book was published posthumously, following the author’s death in 2007. The book is intended for teenagers and is not a difficult read. I’m not even sure who turned me on to this book; something tells me it was an old friend who is both a rapacious reader and school teacher but I can’t be sure–it’s been sitting on my “to read” shelf for far too long.

The story takes place in Ireland during the summer of 1981. It begins when Fergus, the 18 year old main character, discovers an Iron Age bog body outside his hometown. While the discovery and unfolding secrets of the bog child are interesting, Dowd is not content with a single brushstroke. The book also deals with family dynamics, friendships, loyalties, hopes and sacrifices, young romance, and religion, all painted on the tattered canvas of the “Long War” between the IRA and the British Army. Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Bobby Sands until last night and there I was learning about him all over again in a book aimed for teenagers. I think that’s great.

Again, the book isn’t particularly challenging but it is assembled very well. It gives readers (especially teenagers who may not be familiar with the Troubles) important insight into what life may have been like (I wasn’t there) and how asymmetric (or fourth generation) warfare affects everyone, at all levels. This was a good and compelling read.

“We sin, Fergus, more by the sin of omission than of commission.”

4 out of 5

Feb 10 2010

The Windup Girl

Today, I finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2009 sci-fi novel, “The Windup Girl“. Bacigalupi (who I’d never heard of before I picked-up this book) is an up and coming sci-fi author with a penchant for environmental issues. He’s been nominated four times for a Hugo award (not for this one… yet) and receives rave reviews on Amazon, LibraryThing, etc. I decided to give him a try and now that I have, I’m not really sure what all the buzz is about.

The book plods along for the first 300 pages, following half-a-dozen characters as they struggle with cultural, economical, and political intrigues in post-Expansion Thailand. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that the world has been ravaged by rising sea levels, climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels, and a number of pandemics stemming from agricultural genetic engineering. Most world governments have collapsed leaving power in the hands of the agri-corps, which hold the remaining population in thrall with the controlled supply of sterile gene-ripped crop strains. None of this is explained in the book; it’s up to the reader to infer these things from the conversations and thoughts of the book’s characters. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the book, the writing…

OMG is it dry! Everything is written in short clips of present tense. Maybe the book was supposed to be emotionless? I really don’t know. Maybe I’ve been reading too much 19th century writing to appreciate this style. It was hard to tap into the emotions of the characters, the unfolding conflict… The story itself is interesting enough, maybe even compelling to some degree (for the last 60 pages or so). I would have preferred that more be explained from the outset, so I could understand what was being said, characters’ motivations, &c. Instead, I was obliged to push through a number of story lines with I wasn’t particularly interested in, in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t even sure why the windup girl (see title) was anything but a secondary character until the story’s end. Maybe I should have read an earlier novelette of Bacigalupi’s (i.e., “The Calorie Man”) but there was no indication that this was a sequel. *sigh* Would it be so hard to have a short glossary (for all the Thai terms and phrases), perhaps a time line or prologue explaining some of the history leading to the present state of things? I guess so. Is that considered trite in serious science fiction? *shrug*

In the end, after pushing myself to finish it, I just didn’t care. I’m left with a story with some good ideas mired in a writing style that was simply frustrating.

“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.”

3 out of 5

Feb 1 2010

The Three Musketeers

Today, I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic “The Three Musketeers” (in English). I bought a copy of this book about 18 years ago and made a number of failed forays into the first chapter or two. Recently, I picked-up a better copy (I’m partial to hardcovers) and committed myself to seeing what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t hard. In fact, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble starting the book in the first place. Like all good adventure books, the story soon is pulling you along and before you know it, it’s over. Well, not completely over… There are two follow-up books to the d’Artagnan Romances (e.g., Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne) and three further stories (e.g., Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, The Man in the Iron Mask) but I have too much else on my list before I even think about embarking on those.

The book itself was a strange blend of familiar characters involved in unfamiliar circumstances. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising having seen innumerable adaptations in cartoons, television, movies, abridged children’s books, etc. Anyone who has read a version of the story in elementary school should revisit the book again. I was expecting it to end with a huge mêlée between the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, but nothing like that ever manifested. Maybe in a later book? Instead, the story tacks back and forth between a number of villainous characters before settling on one and pursuing that storyline to the finish. As I was coming to the end I began to seriously doubt how the story-lines could ever be wrapped-up in the number of pages left. There is a large and confusing cast of characters, all addressed as M. or Mme., Count this, Countess that… It wasn’t as bad as “Crime and Punishment” where everyone has three names that could be used interchangeably as the narrator saw fit, but it still took some reprogramming every time I put the book down for more than a day at a time. Whining aside, the book was a good deal of fun.

For those unfamiliar with the story (how is that even possible?!), the book revolves around three mysterious Musketeers (who have changed their names to escape their respective pasts) and a young Gascon swordsman who travels to Paris wishing to  join the Musketeer ranks. The story mostly follows d’Artagnan’s adventures, friendships, and romances. In the process he crosses swords and wits with a number of villains ranging from the the Countess de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Man from Meung while professing his love, honor, and service to every lady he meets (married or not… such is the French way?). Despite a wide network of characters, plots, intrigues, and twists the story wraps-up satisfactorily (which is amazing). I will read it again should I ever find the time.

“You are young,” replied Athos; “and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”

4.5 out of 5

Jan 27 2010

All My Sins Remembered

Whenever I was sick enough to stay home from school, my mom would make me stay in bed all day. I used to take that opportunity to read through a pile of torn-up old 60s era comic books my uncle had left for us. Since that time, sick days (when I haven’t been delirious with fever) have been perfect for reading. Today was no different. After three days of fever, cold sweats, sleeplessness, coughing, sneezing, congestion, and chest aches, I started and finished Joe Haldeman‘s 1977 book “All My Sins Remembered“. This happens to be the second Haldeman book I’ve read within the last year, the first being “The Forever War”. Both books struck the same chord in that having finished them, I had no clear idea how I feel about them. I liked them both, and yet…

“All My Sins Remembered” is about a self-avowed “Anglo-Buddhist” named Otto McGavin who is programmed to be a secret agent and undergoes a lifetime of multiple personality overlays and physical alterations for a secret organization known only as TBII (the initials are never explained). The book covers three of his life’s 35 missions and the terrible things his programming has enabled him to do. We’ve read (or more likely “seen”) plenty of stories about implanted memories and talents: 1969’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (Dick), 1987’s “When Gravity Fails” (Effinger), 1999’s “The Matrix” (Wachowski(s)), etc. All told, this one doesn’t stand out too far from the crowd. The story explores how the main character deals with the suppression of his own personality at the expense of his repeated missions, but you seldom get a sense of the underlying struggle (until the end). This is probably because parts of the book first appeared separately in Sci-Fi magazines in 1971, 1974, and 1977. While the alien worlds, cultures, and antagonists are interesting throughout, I wanted to care more about the main character. Upon finishing, I was left with an interesting story filled with interesting ideas tied together with a good ending and wondering why it wasn’t enough.

“Cold-blooded murderer of children, for hire. Well, maybe he had a good side. Kind to snakes or something.”

3.5 out of 5

Jan 23 2010

In Cold Blood

While waiting for a call from the garage on the status of my Jeep, I finished the last pages of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel, “In Cold Blood“. The story was published the year before in the New Yorker, a magazine for people that can make it through 1000s of words of literary self-masturbation without falling dead asleep. I need purpose in the poems and stories that I read. I can’t stand wading through a traffic-jam of words only to find that the words themselves were the only purpose for the piece. Capote wrote for the New Yorker long before I ever picked-up a copy (and fell asleep on the toilet) and delivers from the very beginning. Four shotgun blasts ring out on page three. The rest of the book tries to explain why.

“In Cold Blood” is a collection of many stories woven together, each stemming from the interviews of those affected by the 1959 quadruple murder. Truman Capote and Harper Lee (of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame) traveled to west Kansas to write an article on the Clutter family murders prior to the identification and capture of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The book outlines their subsequent incarcerations, trials, and sentencing. What sets this book apart is that Capote interviewed the murderers and was able to reconstruct their lives leading up to the night of November 15th and give insight into the minds of the condemned.

An interesting addendum to “In Cold Blood” are the criticisms of it. While the book has been lauded as a pioneer of True Crime stories, many have questioned the book’s veracity. Capote did not take notes or recordings during his interviews in Kansas, preferring instead to write quotes and summaries afterward (he claimed “over 90%” retention). There is also the question of whether Perry and Dick were in a homosexual relationship (some have suggested that Dick’s intentions to rape Nancy Clutter may have angered Perry and sparked the murders). Capote, a liberated homosexual himself, never addressed this in the book. His sympathetic handling of Perry’s character however has led some to believe that he developed a “fondness” for the young man awaiting the gallows. While these criticisms might pitch the balance from non-fiction to fiction, they do nothing to detract from the storytelling itself. A compelling book from start to finish.

“Then it was real quiet again. Except that dog. Old Andy, he danced a long time. They must have had a real mess to clean up…” “…The fact is, his heart kept beating for nineteen minutes.”

4 out of 5

Jan 12 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Last night (at the request of a friend), I went to see Terry Gilliam‘s new movie, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2010). This movie will be long remembered as the last project that the late Heath Ledger worked on before his death by “accidental” prescription drug overdose. He actually died during the making of the movie, so some of his parts had to be completed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law (who I enjoyed in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004)), and Colin Farrel (who I liked in “In Bruges” (2008), and that’s about it). If it wasn’t for the tragedy and collaboration that followed, I think the movie would be shortly forgotten. As it is, it will probably be remembered only on Trivial Pursuit cards as: “What was Heath Ledger’s last movie?” to which everyone will answer, “Didn’t he play the Joker in The Dark Knight?” Do you see how I’m using my review to talk about other movies? Yeah, I just noticed that too…

About the movie. Ummm… What does it mean if I’m not sure what the movie is about? Let’s recap. Doctor Parnassus is an old man (like, Methuselah old) and rides around modern-day London with a small troupe of misfits putting on a sideshow. The sideshow isn’t particularly compelling, so most people just blow them off as kooks. Anyone who does accept an invite onto the stage is directed through a flimsy stage mirror and deposited into a fantastical world stemming from their imagination. The portal only works while Doctor Parnassus (an ancient monk) is on stage (or nearby) in a trance. Once in the fantasy world, the visitors are somehow “reborn” by this experience, exit the mirror on a giant swing, and happily give all their possessions to the traveling troupe. While all this is going on, Doctor Parnassus is trying to make good on a bargain he made with the Devil (played wonderfully by Tom Waits), who wants to claim his Betty Boop look-alike daughter Valentina upon her 16th birthday. That’s the set-up and we haven’t even got to Heath Ledger’s part… *deep breath* Heath’s character is initially an amnesiac that the troupe rescues from a hanging who (come to find out) is a great salesman, and is fine with being hanged so long as he’s swallowed a fife beforehand. He helps lure unsuspecting women onto stage to help Parnassus claim five souls per the bargain with the Devil. I think the only thing that Imaginarium and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988) offer are evidence that Terry Gilliam has far better drugs than the rest of us. Did I mention that the movie includes dwarf-actor Verne Troyer dressed in a monkey outfit, talking smack about midgets?!

The Imaginarium is in many ways like the freak show it portrays. You’re drawn in by beautifully painted panels and tapestries, promises of mystery and magic (or a friend who really, really wants to see the movie), and you leave feeling like you’re $10.50 poorer with nothing to show for it.

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”  – Edgar Allan Poe, because the movie wasn’t particularly quote-worthy

2 out of 5

Jan 1 2010


AvatarWhen I was a kid, my father took us to see a movie called “Star Wars” (1977).  This was before it was renamed “…A New Hope” and re-imagined (Han shot first!) as part of a larger work. I remember being awestruck by the movie’s effects, everything from the light-sabers to the first time the rebel fighters opened their wings. Great movie. Years later, I had a similar experience with “Toy Story” (1995) and was amazed at what could be done with computer animation. Another great movie. Last Saturday, we went to see James Cameron’s new 3D movie “Avatar” (it’s funny how I can’t find time to write this stuff while on vacation). Here again is another benchmark movie. While Avatar does not deliver on the 3D holographic immersion long dreamed-of by movie-goers (it has always been just 10 years away), it is a definite step in the right direction.

Equipped with clunky polarized glasses, the audience is treated to the Roger Dean-esque 3D bioluminescent world of Pandora and its New Age eco-sensitive Blue Man Group aboriginals, the Na’vi. The parallels between the Na’vi and American Indians cannot be a mistake. Here we have a 10-foot extraterrestrial race that embodies everything that modern-day Indians tell us about themselves: one with the land, peaceful co-existence between tribes, etc. None of which is true, but it makes for good storytelling. The movie opens with a human corporation preparing to open Pandora’s Box by mining Na’vi sacred sites for a material dubbed Unobtanium (lame, lame, lame). The stone-age natives know something is up, but don’t realize the full breadth of their troubles until the Na’vi avatar of Sam Worthington (i.e., Jake Sully) shows them the light, wins the heart of Pocahontas (i.e., Neytiri), and leads the rebellion against the evil Earthers (all of which can be gleaned from the trailers). Comparisons of Avatar to “Dances With Wolves” (1990) are not off-the-mark. Despite its damning thematic proximity to the spirit of Kevin Costner, the movie is actually worth seeing (if only for the effects).

“Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.” – Dr. Grace Augustine to Jake Sully

4 out of 5

Dec 27 2009

A Christmas Carol

Jacob Marley's GhostToday, I finished Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol“. I was familiar with the story before picking up the book (you’d be hard-pressed finding a Christmas-celebrant who wasn’t familiar with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge). The story is as much a part of the holiday as Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and vain attempts at skirting family drama for 24 hours. The holiday was also a time to find myself parked in front of the television, wrapped in a robe and blanket, flipping through UHF channels looking for something to watch. If it wasn’t “A Christmas Carol” (1938), it was often “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); for some reason, I never saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) until much, much later. I could have gone out and enjoyed the snow but I never liked it much. The snow  always ended up melting in my boots or (if my brother was around) getting stuffed into my hood and down the back of my coat. None of which has anything to do with the book. In later years, I discovered the Richard Donner adaptation “Scrooged” (starring Bill Murray). Who couldn’t like the thought of stapling antlers to the heads of mice in spirit of Christmas?!

For those who are not familiar with the tale (how is that possible?) the story revolves around an old miser who after several visitations from the spirit-world (or possibly just a restless night?), is imbued with the Christmas Spirit.  What is the Christmas Spirit? Well, to Dickens at least, it’s having mercy on his readers and writing a story that comes in under 150 pages. Other than that, old Ebenezer is forced to remember what people used to mean to him and how he let that all slip away. Even if you’re a bit of a humbug about the whole Christmas thing, this story has a great deal to offer about choices, consequences, and redemption. Who wouldn’t be changed and/or humbled by the sight of their own weed-choked grave?

So, what message did I take from my first reading of this story? Never let life stray far from the reason that life is worth living, friends and family. It’s a sentiment that makes me gag on the one hand (that would be the 12 year old boy inside me) and makes me sit in silent agony on the other, as my imagination conjures the graves of all I have ever loved: past, present, and future.

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – Ebenezer Scrooge to Jacob Marley’s Ghost, Charles Dickens

5 out of 5