27 July 2011

300 word reviews - 6 films

I suddenly remembered I have various film reviews I wrote a few years ago. I was a student at the time and saw a lot more films than I do now -I was also more willing to spend time watching films I didn't particularly enjoy.
It was a good exercise in summarising as the aim was to write a synopsis in 100 words or less, and then a review in 200 words or less. Looking back I mostly succeeded to hit the word limit, although I have written more synopses than reviews. Here's a selection, and to prove that I'm not all sweetness and light I'm including some films I didn't get on with.

The Good

Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Pheobe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Rik Mayall
When Elizabeth’s marriage ends she moves in with her mother and starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred. Chaotic, unpredictable Fred is disappointed by the sensible doormat Elizabeth has become and tries to bring out the spirited little trickster she once was. Fred’s antics complicate Elizabeth’s life and although he tries to help her reunite with wayward husband Charley, she ends up taking pills to get rid of him. However Elizabeth’s problems are deeper than she knows and she must take a journey inside herself before she can take control of her life.

Rik Mayall’s manic, slapstick performance is perfect for over-the-top figment Fred, an outrageous character who often evokes laughter. The pranks he and young Elizabeth get up to seem surprising and absurd, but they fit perfectly with the defiant, childish attitude of the film. Bridget Fonda’s controlling, battleaxe mother is a fearsome, relentless figure and the reason Elizabeth lacks control in her adult life just as she did in her childhood. Most of the adults around her display a certain amount of cynicism and their relationships lack the playful openness she has with Fred. Elizabeth must rediscover her sense of fun and independence, and the film warns against taking the trappings of adulthood too seriously. The underlying message about the importance of the inner child is sincere, and even the unpredictable and riotous Fred can be serious when something so important is at stake. Though not a children’s film it has a zany childishness that pokes fun at many adult preoccupations. Twenty years after it was made the message still feels very relevant. The film is light-hearted, fun and very enjoyable.

Night Watch (2004)
Konstantin Khabersky, Dmitri Martynov, Mariya Povoshina, Galina Tyunina
Others, those born with powers beyond mere human scope, must choose to follow either the Light or the Dark. For centuries the two sides have battled but now, under an uneasy truce, each side must police the other to ensure the balance of power is kept. The Night Watch protects humanity from rogue Dark ones including unlicensed vampires and magic-users. Prophecy tells of a powerful Other who will tip the balance of power, but which side will they choose? Meanwhile a supernatural vortex looks set to destroy Moscow, and Night Watch agent Anton Gorodetsky gets his toughest assignment.

This Russian film is quite different to Hollywood productions, and unless you understand Russian it helps if you’re practiced with subtitles and are fully awake. However it’s a very good film, one that isn’t afraid to show many shades of grey, despite the deceptively black and white nature of the concept. It has all the action and suspense of a mainstream blockbuster, but with supernatural elements wonderfully blended into modern-day Moscow. The characterisation isn’t as full as in the books, but then it rarely is in film adaptations. Anton is a likeable character and human enough to overcome the unfamiliarity of his world. The film is gritty and dark at times, but there are light moments, including a boy consulting Buffy the Vampire Slayer when faced with his own vampire problems. The subtitles are impressive and even won a technical award; they’re not intrusive because they’re built into the visuals of the film. The effects are well done, the visuals are consistent and the action is violent but not over the top. A refreshingly innovative and fast-paced action film combined with gritty urban fantasy.

The Bad

The Dark Is Rising (2007)
Christopher Eccleston, Alexander Ludwig, Ian McShane
Will Stanton is the youngest son in a large American family living in England. He turns fourteen just before Christmas and starts seeing strange things around him. After being pursued by the sinister Rider he learns that he is one of the Old Ones; powerful, immortal beings that exist outside of time. Will is the Seeker and he must find the six Signs of Light hidden throughout time. However he only has five days before the Rider’s power peaks and the world is plunged into darkness. His adventures will reveal hidden power and family secrets.

This is a very predictable fantasy adventure film. Will is believable as a young teenager overshadowed by five older brothers and the Stanton family dynamic comes off well even though the older brothers are hard to distinguish. Eccleston is menacing as the Rider however the part isn’t a challenge relying as it does on looking evil rather than character motivation. The Old Ones are fairly stereotypical, however there is warmth between them. Camera work and slow motion are used to emphasise significant moments, but this happens so frequently that plot points utterly fail to be surprising. Although the supernatural elements are unsubtle they are visually successful, the CGI was rarely intrusive. The romantic subplot is unnecessary and obvious despite, or perhaps because of, attempts to make it mysterious. Brief references to the significance of Will’s father and his research are introduced then ignored. The film is very familiar and doesn’t do anything new or spectacular, anyone jaded by fantasy clichés should stay away. It is watchable and will be enjoyed by those who like a simple, heart-warming story. Sadly you can tell there were some genuinely good ideas behind this film - my advice is to read the book.

Passion of Mind (2000)
Demi Moore,
Marty/Marie is a woman who cannot tell her dreams from reality. She is both a single mother living in France with her two daughters and a high-flying New York literary agent, whenever she goes to sleep she switches persona. Unable to figure out which life is real she starts relationships with two men, one in New York and one in France. Both men want her to give up her dream life, and the romance that comes with it, but without knowing which is real she is reluctant to give up on either.

The premise has potential but the film didn’t ever live up to it. I could have been a thriller, SF, maybe even a Rom Com at a stretch, but it didn’t ever choose and so it ended up pointless and dull. The film might have been trying to make a point, but if so I couldn’t figure out what it was. Both of the woman’s lives seem solid and valid with few clues as to which one is real until the end when one is chosen. The concept has room for introspection, surrealism and psychological drama, none of which are actually present. It seemed to be an exercise in getting Demi Moore to play the same character in two different situations, which are almost entirely unconnected. She just goes to sleep on one set and wakes up on the other. Neither life is particularly compelling, and neither version of the character makes you root for her to be real. Even the revelation is disappointing, things get slightly odd and then that’s it. The resolution is fine, but not earth-shattering, and you are left with the feeling that the film was going somewhere but was too uncertain about actually getting there.

The Ugly

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)
Josh Harnett, Shannyn Sossamon
Matt makes a 40-day celibacy vow after a bad break-up and a string of meaningless one night stands. His friends are sceptical and unbeknownst to him create a website and start taking bets on how long he can go without sexual pleasure. Meanwhile he makes a connection with Erica, the girl of his dreams, who is interested in him but a little put off by his vow. His mounting sexual frustration is not helped by the stunts of his friends and a conniving ex, not to mention the large number of surprisingly attractive young women he encounters.

I missed the first half hour of this film but the plot was easy to pick up. Matt’s near-identical friends are pathetically obsessed with his sex life and their amazement that he gives up masturbation shows just how much they prize that particular activity. The film is ridiculously phallocentric with most of the male characters behaving like sexually frustrated teenagers –they are apparently grownups. The female characters are little better, mostly coming off as either manipulative or slutty. The saving grace is the interaction between the two leads; their on-screen chemistry is endearing enough to make you care. The message -that people can connect without sex- is completely undermined by the massive emphasis all the characters place on sex. Even a priest and a nun get some action. I’m reliably informed that men can survive 40-day periods of abstinence without ill-effects. Matt’s reaction suggests that he has a serious medical problem, not that this is treated as unusual. What the film actually says is that while romance isn’t dead you’d better get your end in once in a while otherwise you’ll probably explode. Amusing if immature, you can’t take this seriously unless you’re over-sexed.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Eddie Izzard, Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson
An act of bravery gets Matt Saunders a date with the neurotic Jenny Johnson. Their relationship progresses when Matt discovers that Jenny is really superhero G Girl. However the heroine becomes obsessive and Matt realises he has feelings for his colleague Hannah. Breaking up is unbearable as G Girl uses increasingly violent and outlandish revenge tactics. Her arch-nemesis, the embittered Professor Bedlam, enlists Matt’s help in de-powering her. Various complications ensue but the resolution sees everyone getting more or less what they deserve.

There’s an assumption that rom-coms are primarily aimed at women, but this film belies that. The viewpoint character is male and although the lead female is powerful she’s also a clichéd, clingy, hormonal woman. The pervy friend and a totally gratuitous, supernatural breast-enlargement (which is actually in keeping with unacknowledged superhero tropes) keep this from being a chic-flick. The film is amusing if you are willing to accept the premise that women -especially powerful ones- are crazy and irrational, though if the gender roles were reversed it would be horrific. The superhero elements aren’t very inventive, G Girl’s powers are gimmicky and don’t provide as much of a twist as they could. In fact the SF elements are so bland and simplistic you’d be forgiven for missing them, although that may be a conscious attempt to keep the film mainstream despite its SF subject matter. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal of a super villain is amusingly quirky but very familiar, and frankly he can do better. The supporting cast are fairly thin and stereotypical but they serve their purpose and set up the jokes. The film is entertaining enough if you’re willing to ignore G-Girl’s personality, but don’t expect anything heroic.

Recent Reading

King of Attolia by Megan Whelan Turner
The third and -I believe- final book in this series.
This volume is told mostly from the POV of Costis, a guardsman who punches his new King in the face for. His punishment is to be the King's personal guard -surely preferable to the torture or death that the Queen would have administered. At first Costis is constantly annoyed by the behaviour of this foreign interloper who has married his Queen and seems completely unsuited and uninterested in court life. However as the story progresses Costis sees new sides to the King and realises that he is not the idiot he seems.
If you have read the first 2 books it is very clear that Gen has become King almost as an afterthought (his plan was to marry the Queen -the rather surprising love of his life). However now that he is King he clearly has some sort of plan. There are several amusing bits, among all the intrigue and it was a good move having honorable, innocent Costis as the main viewpoint character. Any other character would have too much involvement to be a trustworthy, especially Gen.
I liked this book better than the 2nd one (The Queen of Attolia), which was darker and felt very different to the 1st (The Thief).

A Kiss in Time by Alex Finn
This is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty written for a teenage market. The story is told in 1st person POV by Talia, an 18th century princess in a small European country, and Jack a modern American teenager.
Talia is Sleeping Beauty and has grown up constantly supervised and warned against cursed spindles -she has also grown up rather spoiled. Jack is sent to Europe by his parents and resents the 'educational' trip that has been forced on him, as a result he also acts kinda spoiled. At first the characters are not particularly likeable, although it is clear that both are reacting against their circumstances.
There's some amusing clash of cultures moments when 18th century thinking meets the modern world. Talia's amazement with almost everything is an excellent counter to Jack's bored cynicism and being treated like an ordinary girl is exactly what Talia needs. As the reader learns more about them both Jack and Talia become more likeable. The main threat is provided by the wicked witch Malvolia who, despite the unfortunate name, is actually just a fairy who was treated very badly centuries before.
This is a nice story, a fairly quick and entertaining read. It uses the Sleeping Beauty fairytale as a starting point, but then become much more about the personalities of the two leads.

Alex Finn is also the author of Beastly, which was recently made into a film. I'm reliably informed by a member of the teenage reading group at work that the film is pretty different to the book.

26 July 2011

Why I Love 39 by Queen

This post is slightly later than I intended, I was being a bit useless at the weekend. This post is also not on the preliminary list of posts I came up with, but I don't care because this is an excellent song.

Queen have many excellent, well known songs. I don't really need to explain why I like Bohemian Rhapsody, or One Vision, or Killer Queen. 
I walked down the aisle to Brian May's version of the wedding march from Flash Gordon and me and my husband had You're My Best Friend playing -among other songs- after the wedding ceremony.

The first time I heard 39 I didn't realise it was Queen because the song is sung -and written- by Brian May, and I often identify songs or bands by vocalist. I was listening on my ipod shuffle, which doesn't give you any song info.
The lyrics really struck me and I ended up listening to the song three times in order to get the whole thing, then once I was home I immediately looked it up.

In the year of thirty-nine
Assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
The sweetest sight ever seen
And the night followed day
And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Ne'er looked back never feared never cried

Don't you hear my call

Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grand-children knew

In the year of thirty-nine

Came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
For the earth is old and grey
little darlin' well away
But my love this cannot be
Oh so many years have gone
Though i'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me

Don't you hear my call

Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grand-children knew

Don't you hear my call

Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand
For my life's still ahead, pity me.

'In the land that our grandchildren knew' was the lyric the really caught my attention. My initial thought was of time travel and it turns out that I was sort of right.
Although people thought that the song was about war (being in the year of '39 and all) or colonisation, it's quite clear that the song is actually about lost love and time dilation. It's actually beautiful in a sad way.
A brave astronaut helps find the new world his people so dearly need, but in doing that he loses the love of his life as she ages and (presumably) dies in the 'year' he's away. The last line is so full of emotion it's heart-breaking.

This song is the reason I learned about time dilation as I spoke to my husband about the song and he explained about how time dilation works and how it's to do with relativity. The faster and further a spaceship goes, the more time passes on the home planet. Like in Flight of the Navigator, which I saw various times as a child, although I've never seen the beginning.
It's not surprising that this is the subject matter as Brian May has a PhD in Astrophysics.

The song has folksy guitar and soaring background vocals, which reflect both the sad simplicity of lost love and the grand ideas of the SF setting.

I'm no music expert, and have done limited research into musical SF (although any suggestions in this area are appreciated), but I think this song doesn't get the attention it so clearly deserves.

16 July 2011

Why I Love Greek Mythology

When I was 6 (maybe 7) I was told the story of Hades and Persephone by a supply teacher at school. I remembered the story, though I'm sure the pronounciation of Persephone (per-sef-oh-nee) escaped me at the time.
It was like a fairy tale, but it explained something and the ending wasn't simply happy, there was compromise.

It later occurred to me that despite their popularity in children's literature Greek Mythology (like most other mythologies) is not especially child friendly. However, possibly because they were viewed as scholarly and academic, Classical myths managed to escape the bowdlerisation that fairy tales underwent. So when they're presented to children they are simply toned down not reworked.
Telling these same recognisable tales is quite a trick for a set of myths that involves kidnaps, killings, weird sexual/reproductive stuff and so, so many extramarital affairs.

I remember having a Usborne book of the Ancient World (I still have it and read it fondly while doing my Ancient History degree) and going back to the page about the Greek pantheon. There was just something fascinating about these figures that represented things, but were also very definite characters.

The interest grew, I read tonnes of Greek mythology books. As I got older the details got more graphic.
Aphrodite wasn't born from a Titan's blood falling into the sea, she appeared when a Titan's castrated genitals were thrown into the sea.

As a kid you accept that the Minotaur was the product of a woman and a bull. As a teenager you realise that's impossible, however you are intrigued to hear that Daedalus (Icarus' dad, who created both the wings and the labyrinth) actually fashioned a 'device' so that Queen Pasiphae (Pass-ih-fie-ee) could slake her unnatural lust for a bull,* whilst wearing some kind of cow disguise.
Now there's a mental image for you.

One of the great thing about Greek myths is that they are interesting stories, with interesting characters. Over 2000 years later there are still themes, emotions and motivations we can understand today. This is probably why the stories get retold and redone so many times, and in so many ways. I'll be the first to admit that I can get a bit pedantic about this particular subject (I usually try to do it for comic effect). But in all honesty Greek myths have been reshaped so many times, in so many ways -and that's just during the BC period- that they are actually fairly malleable, whilst still being a very recognisable set of tales.

At Eastercon Gideon Nisbet (lecturer in Classics) gave a talk and made the point that Classical themes tie very well with SF. He even drew a comparison between Classical Mythology and the comic book universes of DC and Marvel. There's a big cast of characters with a variety of back stories.
This struck a chord with me as I love Greek myth and my husband loves Marvel comics -and we've had discussions over which is more complicated. I maintain that without time travel, alternate/parallel universes, clones, and aliens Greek myth can't be as complicated. Though as I've said above mythology doesn't have canon and there's no editorial hand guiding, but equally there's no change in editor/writer to try and unmake previous tales.

Edited to add:
The text of Gideon's BSFA lecture is now available online for any that are interested.

* She did get hit by Eros' love arrow, I can't remember why just now.

13 July 2011

Books wot I have read

Huntress by Malinda Lo

This is set in same world as Lo's first book Ash (a take on a Cnderella story), but with very different feel. It is based on feudal Japan (as far as I can tell, it's not an area/time I'm very familiar with) rather than western fairy tale. The note at the beginning says it's set in the same world, but a long time before. The Wood and fairies are present in this book although -like the human society- feel very different.

3 teenagers Crown Prince Con, Sage-in-training Taisin, and Advisor's daughter Kaede, are sent north on the King's orders to meet with the Fairy Queen. The land has been suffering under ongoing winter, causing famine, vagrancy and rebellion. The small group (including guards) travel into the Wood where they face supernatural dangers. I felt that the quest part of the story worked well, though once the characters reach their destination I felt that the ending was a little rushed, especially considering all the foreshadowing there was.
It is a society -and a story- in which lesbianism is present throughout, and not really a big deal. Kaede is daughter of a royal adviser and so expected to make a political match. she has argued that she's only interested in girls, but her mother tells her she is being narrow-minded while her father ignores her objections.

Taisin sees visions and is adept at controlling energies, making her perfect sage material. When she has a vision that shows her schoolmate Kaede setting out across a lake she is shocked by the deep feelings she has towards this girl she doesn't really know. The quest part of the plot is made more poignant by the growing romance between the characters.

Embassytown by China Mieville

In this book a world is created then torn apart. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Perdido Street Station, which I found more unnerving (terrifying, giant moths) and in the end more melancholy. The major difference is that Embassytown is a far more fragile settlement, it's a human settlement that relies entirely on the cooperation and technology of the native alien Hosts (Ariekes). The story is told entirely in first person by Avice Benner Cho, a woman from Embassytown who was one of few inhabitants to leave and go out to other planets. The first part alternates between present events and flashbacks so that Avice and the world she grew up in are introduced to the reader.

Once we are familiar with Embassytown and how it works -its links with the Host aliens, its bubble of breathable air, its upper class of Ambassadors (fully identical, linked, doppels/twins)- a paradigm shift happens and everything goes to pot. The society that was built up faces a major catastrophe and descends into desperation and barbarism and war. The book is about the people who carry on trying to keep things running in the face of likely destruction. It's about how there will still be factions and politicking even in the face of disaster.

10 July 2011

Why I Love The Fifth Element

I'm doing this post slightly sooner than I intended as people have been discussing this on Facebook. Sorry folks, you are just going to have to wait for a ramble about history.

The Fifth Element
In case you haven't seen The Fifth Element, get thee to youtube (though the trailer does seem a bit spoilery and doesn't really show much of the humour that makes the film so good).

Alternatively you can read my plot synopsis:
In 2257 a planet-sized, evil entity threatens to exterminate life in the universe unless four ancient, elemental stones can be joined with the mysterious fifth element to create a secret weapon, long guarded by the Mondoshawan race. Taxi-driver and former military man Korben Dallas rescues and then falls for the beautiful but odd Leeloo. He becomes explosively embroiled in the machinations of an ancient priesthood, the government, an eccentric billionaire and alien mercenaries. It’s a race against time to save life in the universe and only Leeloo has the solution. 

Written and directed by Luc Besson this is a comedic, SF action film with a plot that isn't simplistic, but is easy to follow. The comedy ranges from funny little touches to laugh out loud moments, and the stunts and action set-pieces are well done and full of firepower. There are some heavier, emotional moments, that can be quite touching, although no one watching will be in any doubt as to who is going to win the day.

The setting is brilliantly realised, with every scene packed full of little details in the scenery, props, costumes and effects, which add to the feel of a rich and realistic future world. 
What's also great is that it's heavily industrialised, crowded future -where the ground of New York is lost in fog- but it isn't a dystopia. The world was clearly created with a sense of lighthearted fun, I suspect that the crew enjoyed putting their own stamp on this cool futuristic setting. The film itself makes it clear that humanity is far from perfect, that as a race we've done plenty of crappy things (war being chief among those), but yet the tone rarely dips below hopeful. It's one of the most optimistic yet familiar versions of the future you will seen on film.

Milla Jovovich's spirited portrayal of Leeloo is great to watch. I think it's fair to say that Milla Jovovich is an actress who gravitates to a certain type of role. In fact The Fifth Element is so ingrained in my consciousness that I now see her playing either Leeloo, or character-that-isn't-quite-Leeloo, though possibly that dichotomy will change once I've seen her play Milady in the upcoming Three Musketeers film?

Bruce Willis plays his familiar gruff yet sentimental man of action, but his peculiar, John-Paul Gautier designed costume reflects the playful and delightfully self-mocking tone of the film. Korben is the everyman, but (like John Mclaine) an everyman who knows how to shoot guns and blow stuff up!

Ian Holm plays a kindly priest of an ancient order. Committed to ensuring good triumphs he seems bumbling, but is actually fairly quick-witted. His good-naturedness collides with desperation and the scene where he very apologetically bashes someone over the head is a joy to watch. This film cemented Ian Holm as a kindly fellow in my head, and so it causes me no little confusion when he plays darker characters in other films.

Chris Tucker is unrecognisable and absolutely hilarious as wild, metrosexual* celebrity Ruby Rhod, despite the challenges of this over the top character he never lets his performance slide.

Gary Oldman is wonderfully bizarre and amoral as human bad guy Zorg. Oh, and that weird plastic thing on his head was apparently his idea.

This is an excellent film where the absurd, serious, violent and comedic sit comfortably side-by-side without any one feeling imposed or superficial. If you haven't seen this film you should. If you have, go watch it again.

* Particularly impressive considering the word Metrosexual hadn't even been invented at the time the film was made. Though I suspect it's a concept that's far more understandable to the French mindset than the US one.

9 July 2011

Why I Love... Coming Soon

Oops left it longer than intended to update here. Trying to post a couple of times a week.
My main excuse is that I've been reading a lot, so there will be a book update soon. I've also thinking about work stuff and the future (but not in a cool SF kinda way), it's all very dull and I shall speak of it no more. That's not want I have this blog for, so instead to happier things...

I'm planning on starting a new weekly series of posts entitled Why I Love [insert thing here], because it's nice to think about things you love and share them with others. And in these uncertain times it's good to say something positive.

I'm composing a couple of posts in my head already, and trying to stop them from becoming incoherent squeeing. It's probably best to explain why you like something, rather than just gushing about it.

Ideas so far:
Stuart History
The Fifth Element
Greek Mythology
Various Works of Diana Wynne Jones

Now I really should stop watching youtube videos and get on with housework.
I have a guest staying tonight and will be dog-sitting for my parents over the next few days.