Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Weekend Movie Roundup (June 09-11)

This post is late, but better late than never. It's also leaner than usual by virtue of the fact that I don't have time to ramble on!

Ice Pirates (1984)
This is a cheesy sci fi flick starring Robert Urich (as Jason), he of Spenser for Hire fame. In the distant future, water is a scarce commodity controlled by an opressive group called the Templar Knights (at least I think that's what they were called). Jason and his pirates raid and steal water from transport vessels. During a raid, they encounter Princess Karina, and become embroiled in a quest to find a mysterious water filled planet. Chases, battles, and time warps ensue. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it knows it's bad, which makes it kinda fun.

Lord of War (2005)
Andrew Niccol wrote and directed the excellent Gattaca, so my hopes were high going into this one. While not as great as Gattaca, Lord of War is pretty darned good. It's a drama / black comedy about an arms dealer, Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), about how he quickly rises up the ranks and establishes himself as THE arms dealer to turn to for any self-respecting warlord. The film is essentially split up into Yuir's personal life, the means by which he carries out his sordid work, and the politics that come into play in his line of work. It's not played out in an entirely realistic way and many things are glossed over, but it is darned entertaining and has an undeniable ring of truth to it. A unique film, definitely worth a look.

Princess Mononoke (1997)
Brilliant. Classic. If you haven't heard of Hayao Miyazaki, he's the modern day equivalent to Walt Disney, and this is one of many fantastic anime films he's directed. A prince from an ancient tribe, Prince Ashitaka, is cursed after battling a demonic beast, and is banished from his village. He sets out West to find the source of the demon and becomes embroiled in a conflict between a mining town and the forest spirits that are fighting to protect their land from destruction. Among the forest spirits is a human girl, Princess Mononoke (Princess of the Spirits), who's deeply entwined in the conflict. Ashitaka hopes to be cured by the forest spirit / deer god, and to also help settle the conflict in a reasonable manner for both sides. My summary doesn't do it justice - there's a lot more than that going on here. The story is fairly complex and thematically rich, and there's strong, even-handed characterization. It's all brought to life with beautiful animation and music. A must see...

Superman Returns... Positive Buzz

Well whaddaya know? Despite the generally negative outlook this film has had since director Bryan Singer jumped ship from the X-Men franchise to spearhead its development, the early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. See Rotten Tomatoes for an aggregation of reviews, where it's currently at 94% positive. Glowing reviews include those from Time, Newsweek, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Ain't it Cool.

I haven't been blown away by any of the previews, but I'm more than a little excited to see this now... All of Singer's previous films have been very good, and there's little reason to expect otherwise from this one. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights

Northern Lights (1995) by Phillip Pullman is the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I finished this over a week ago but didn't get a chance to write about it till now. I'm going to have to keep this post short because I just don't have time to be my usual bloated self (yay! all of you non-existent readers cry out in unison).

Northern Lights is a fantasy novel that takes place in a parallel universe that's somewhat similar to ours - technologically it's like a cross between our time and the mid 19th century. Some countries and peoples are the same, and others aren't. Slightly different words are used to describe things, such as 'anbaric' instead of 'electric'. Other major differences from our world are the presence of talking warrior polar bears, witches, and daemons. The latter are talking animal companions that every person has; the animal is an extension of a person's soul.

Within this alternate universe, the story revolves around a girl called Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra is an orphan who has lived at a college in Oxford virtually her whole life. Being tenacious and too curious for her own good, she stumbles upon something that ultimately sends her on a dangerous journey away from the relative comfort of her home. A journey that sees her teaming up with a group of Gyptians to look for a friend captured by the sinister 'Gobblers'. Lyra also learns about the mysterious 'Dust' that has the omnipotent Church worried, and acquires a strange 'truth telling' device called an alethiometer.

Northern Lights is ostensibly a children's / young adult's book, but that shouldn't put you off. Unless you're a completely cynical adult, you should be able to enjoy it. It's definitely more adult oriented than, say, the Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia. It's compulsive and I was immersed by Pullman's fantastical world. The story is fairly original and has a healthy mixture of outright fantasy, science, pseudoscience, theology, and politics layered around the genre staple concept of having a young orphan protagonist with a destiny to fulfill. Well worth a read for fantasy fans, and even if you're not, it's good enough to be worth a look-see.

I've already started on the second part of the trilogy (which takes place partly in our universe), and I can't wait to see how the story pans out.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hard Drive Woes + Willow

I lost my second hard drive in the space of less than six months. Fortunately I always have two on my machine and backup important data from one to the other. The last one that failed was just two years old. This one was slightly over three years old. Not too impressive I have to say, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that they were IBM Desk(Death)Stars.

Since my OS drive was gone, I had a fun weekend reinstalling everything from scratch. FUN! I'm still in the process of restoring everything, and it probably won't be back to 'normal' for a few weeks yet, as I come across applications I've forgotten. AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH! As you can imagine, I didn't exactly have much time for watching movies, but I still managed to sneak one in on Sunday evening.

Willow (1988) - Or Lord of the Rings Lite. Directed by Ron Howard and written by George Lucas, the fantasy flick owes more than a small debt to Tolkien's opus.

The story goes something like this. The evil queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) rules over the land, but there is a prophecy that a child will be born who will one day bring about her downfall. To prevent this from happening, Bavmorda rounds up all the pregnant women in the land (no, really) and when their babies are born she checks them for a birthmark that this child is meant to have on her arm. When the child is born, someone manages to sneak her out of the castle and she winds up floating along a river and into the hands of the unlikeliest person imaginable. No, not Bilbo Baggins, but Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), one of a race of 'little people' who live in their idyllic pastoral little village.

The village wizard tells Willow that he must take the baby out of the village and give it to one of the 'big folk'. So Willow sets out with a small band of his buddies, and they wind up dodging black riders and meeting Galadriel. Willow finally ends up alone with the baby (the others return to the village), and is forced to team up with Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), an impish rogue who's also the greatest swordsman alive. They adventure from one place to the next, meet up with a cursed sorceress, a medieval hottie, and a few nasty creatures before the climactic showdown with the evil Bavmorda (hope I didn't spoil that for you).

On technical merits Willow holds up well - it was probably a marvel when it came out. The production values are top notch, and the effects are good for their day. I found the story to be fairly engaging (if derivative), but lots of the events seemed to be contrived and not driven by character or logic. The whole thing lacks the 'epic' feel that it obviously strives for, with people running from one land (and landscape) to the next in seemingly a matter of hours. The action sequences aren't all that impressive or exciting. The thing that really drags the film down is the tone, which consistently resorts to childish buffoonery. This should have been an early warning for Star Wars fans - childish buffoonery is something Lucas carried over to the Star Wars prequels (although he tried to phase it out by the third film, and replaced it with childish melodrama and inane characterization).

Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer are well cast and play off each other nicely, and their banter makes for some of the more memorable character moments. Fortunately these two are the central characters to the story, because most of the other characters are forgettable. The exception is the evil Bavmorda, played with over-the-top hamminess by Jean Marsh. The scenes with the Nelwyns (the little people) is actually fairly strong and feels more real than the rest of the film.

As with most Ron Howard films, Willow is directed clinically but with a nondescript style. The writing, as with so many fantasy films, features anachronistic dialog - medieval people saying things like 'jackass' is just plain incongruous. Thankfully, this doesn't happen too much anymore. The music is nice, but James Horner's trademark self-plagiarism is readily apparent. Overall, Willow is a fun film to watch, and I loved it as a kid, but through my now jaded eyes its flaws are obvious. This was once one of the better fantasy films around; today, it's not even close. Good but not great, with a few too many groan inducing moments.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Dead Like Me

I finished watching the first season of Dead Like Me a week ago. Created by Bryan Fuller, the guy who co-created the fantastic Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me tells the story of Georgia "George" Lass, an 18 year old girl who is killed when a toilet seat from the Mir space station falls on her. Unfortunately for George she doesn't get to move on to heaven (or whatever it's meant to be), because she's forced to join the ranks of the Grim Reapers, who's job it is to take the souls of the dead and guide them to the afterlife. Kind of like a first day orientation guide at a workplace, only more morbid. It seems that reapers aren't guys in black hoods with scythes, but ordinary (ish) Joes who's reaping jobs are as soul destroying (no pun intended) as your 9 to 5 desk job, complete with insufferable co-workers and bureaucratic upper management.

So basically, it's a black comedy / drama that centres on George and her little band of reapers, and George's family (her parents and little sister) as they cope with life without her. George was basically a smart-ass kid who didn't know what to do with her life, and the show spends a lot of time on her dwelling on her (wasted) life and coming to terms with her 'after-life' life. Her family, which didn't exactly have it all together when she was alive, continues to fall apart after she's gone, as the un-dead George discovers (although she's forbidden from directly interfering with their lives). The reapers are an insane bunch - led by Rube (Mandy Patinkin, Inigo Montoya himself!), and including the druggie brit Mason, the (wannabe) Hollywood starlet Daisy, and the sassy meter maid Roxy.

There's copious amounts of swearing in this (presumably because it was made for cable), which is a refreshing touch, although they do go overboard with it on occasion. The show has humour and has angsty drama, and both aspects are done well. Ellen Muth, who plays George, has strange mannerisms and a quirkiness that you'll either like or dislike. I grew to like the character, although her tendency to never NOT be cynical or depressed can get a little annoying. The man who steals the show is Mandy Patinkin (Rube) though, with his no nonsense attitude, his sardonic grin, and his tendency to pontificate with a wry sense of humour. And the food Rube eats (not to mention the way he talks about it)! I don't think you can go through an episode of Dead Like Me without feeling like munching on something from "Der Waffle Haus".

Overall, I'd say the show's very good, but admittedly I never got into it as much as I did Wonderfalls. It just doesn't seem to have as much charm. It's still much better than most things out there though. I'll definitely be checking out Season two - the last season, since there were only two seasons made.