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E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA)
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Tales of the Hidden World
Tales of the Hidden World
by Simon R. Green
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
20 used & new from CDN$ 13.59

4.0 out of 5 stars I always found reality very limiting, Jan. 11 2015
Simon R. Green is one of those authors who just overflows with awesome ideas -- in fact, often he will slap some of his awesome ideas into books that are otherwise unrelated.

So he does quite well in the short stories in "Tales of the Hidden World," a loose web of short stories about ghastly aliens, Droods, wizards, zombies and whatnot. Green's fertile imagination and zippy writing keep every short story entertaining and inventive, although at times I wondered if it was all meant to be in the same big messy universe that most of his books inhabit.

It begins with a bittersweet tale of the Drood Armourer, an old man reflecting on his life -- the woman he loved, the people he lost, the son who went rogue, and his feelings about the life he has led. It's a rather sad note for the collection to open on, but it's also an affectionate farewell for a character who has endured throughout the Secret Histories series.

Among the other tales: A snarky Dresden-Files-esque tale of a street wizard who polices the street at night, encountering a wacky assortment of aliens, vampires, Street Preachers and others.
*A homeless man's thoughts on the undead.
*A true story about meeting Death.
*An elderly Dorothy's last visit to Oz, and the discovery of the fantastical land's true nature.
*The hated and feared Lords and Ladies are called upon to defend Old Earth from the grotesque alien Medusae.
*"The House that stands on the border" between worlds, and what happens when it isn't properly maintained.
*Humans locked into robotic "hard suits" are sent to a dangerous jungle world, and discover it may be too deadly even for them.
*A conversation between Jesus and Satan about... well, the nature of reality.
*An investigative reporter who runs afoul of the Epicure, whose love of fine cuisine masks a horrifying secret.
*"Apocalypse Now" with an undead twist.
... and a bunch of Green's earliest works, such as some decent sword-and-sorcery, an environmental mood piece, a Soulhunter searching for the Hags, and several others.

The best description of "Tales of the Hidden World" would be a collection of odds and ends. "Question of Solace" is the only one that is explicitly tied to Green's other tales; the others seem to be mostly other kinds of short stories that floated out of his imagination, ranging from a true story to a "Wizard of Oz" fanfic to assorted standalone tales that he was inspired/challenged to write.

And short stories really work for Green's too-many-cool-ideas imagination -- he can crafts short stories all about some of these ideas (the Hags, who steal the souls of aborted babies) or weave them into a story all about how weird Soho is (a sewer-dwelling undine). His writing is snappy and snarky ("Inhumanly handsome, insufferably graceful, and almost unbearably arrogant. Not because he was a Prince, you understand, but because he was an Elf"), but he can also provide stories that are unexpectedly serious and poetic ("From Out of the Sun, Endlessly Singing").

"Tales of the Hidden World" is a nice little sampler of Green's work -- and while only one story is explicitly set in Green's usual universe, it's a fun and colorful collection of ideas, stories and early works.

Unmade (The Lynburn Legacy Book 3)
Unmade (The Lynburn Legacy Book 3)
by Sarah Rees Brennan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 15.16
38 used & new from CDN$ 13.64

4.0 out of 5 stars This is the inevitable end of all struggles against a greater power, Jan. 11 2015
After a middle volume that was too... middle-volumey, the Lynburn Legacy series comes back swinging with the climactic battle between the forces of good and evil.

And after the disastrous climax of the second book, things aren't looking too good for the heroes in "Unmade" -- author Sarah Rees Brennan heaps one disaster and setback on our scrappy, ragtag band of struggling sorcerers and snarky mundanes. And as usual, there's plenty of English-cottage prettiness, flashy magic and a haunting cloud of menace that lurks over every scene.

A few weeks after the battle, things are not going well for Kami Glass and her cohorts. Jared is missing, presumed dead. Sorcerers still control Sorry-in-the-Vale like magical stormtroopers. And Rob finally gets his first human sacrifice -- plus, he's demanding another one at the spring equinox.

Then things start to look up when Kami learns that Jared is alive, drugged and trapped in the walls of Aurimere -- and she and her friends must invade the house and figure out where he's being imprisoned. But wresting Jared back doesn't end their problems. More ones crop up when a ritual with Ash accidentally cripples both of their magic, leaving only Holly, Kami and the icy Lillian to protect the group.

And as the spring solstice approaches, Rob attacks them from all sides, targeting Kami's family with fire, stone and his loyal sorcerers. Then Kami discovers the long-lost secret of the Lynburn family -- a spell that will grant her, Ash and Jared unimaginable power that could destroy Rob... and it might also destroy them in the process. But if they don't do it, the entire town may die.

After the rather weak, wheel-spinning "Untold," it's nice to see that "Unmade" is a return to the tighter, faster form of the first book. Everything in this book slowly puts the pieces together for the final stand against Rob Lynburn, and Brennan sprinkles the story with terrifying setbacks -- the early sacrifice of a "willing victim" signals that Sorry-in-the-Vale has gone past the point of no return.

And despite the occasional lighter moment, a dark cloud settles over the story, growing thicker and more frightening with every passing atrocity. Brennan's writing shines during these darker moments ("I hate as lesser men could never dream of hating, with fire that will burn when the sun is ashes in the sky"), and the final chapters of the book are painfully powerful (Kami's letter to the town), more dreamlike and haunting.

The biggest problem is perhaps Brennan's trademark snarky, jokey dialogue, which works well most of the time. But in the darker, more tragic parts of the book, it just undercuts the importance of what the characters do. Fortunately, it diminishes strongly after the final sacrifice.

Kami also grows up to some degree -- she has to deal with the terrible after-effects of the group's actions, and of her own curiosity. There's not quite enough guilt or self-recrimination, but you get the feeling that Kami has become a more steadfast, capable person by the end. Similarly, Jared works past the last of the self-loathing he's always had, finding strength in his brotherhood with Ash and his obvious feelings for Kami. And there is strong development -- for good or ill -- in most of the supporting characters, such as Lillian, Claire, Angela, Rusty, and even Rob himself.

"Unmade" brings the Lynburn Legacy series to a strong, solid conclusion, which can be a bit too flippant at times, but knows how to handle the darker side of cottage fantasy.

Starship Rising
Starship Rising
DVD ~ Claudia Wells
Price: CDN$ 19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I wanna fly!, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Starship Rising (DVD)
Have you ever seen a movie that wasn't just bad, but almost hypnotically bad? A fractal of wretchedness that reveals new intricate facets of DEAR LORD WHAT IS THAT? as you look deeper and deeper, until you realize that this is some elaborate torture method devised by Beelzebub?

Yes, I'm engaging in hyperbole. Why not?

Admittedly, "Starship Rising" is not quite THAT unpleasant, because writer/director Neil Johnson clearly has an interesting story to tell. He just has no idea how to tell it effectively. And so the result is an awkward, claustrophobic film, which appears to be equal parts Star Wars, Star Trek, and "Dune"... but without any of the artistic merit.

The story is confusing and overstuffed, but I shall try to summarize. John Worthy (Darren Jacobs) is a pilot for the dystopian Federation, which is about to go to war with the religion-driven Terra Nostra. He's assigned to the Federation's greatest warship, Starship One -- but when they are commanded to vaporize Old Earth, John suddenly decides to openly mutiny, killing his captain and causing them to crash on Earth.

Meanwhile, the Overseer of the Federation (Johnson) has left on some kind of secret mission to find the Masters who are responsible for the human race... or maybe the sequel to "Prometheus." Anyway, John Worthy (symbolic name!) suddenly becomes the symbol of revolution, and the cruel General Gustav (Ralph Guzzo) pursues him with only one intent.

In a way, I almost feel bad criticizing "Starship Rising," despite it being worse than a stab to the gonads.
It's kind of like kicking a person who is paralyzed, unconscious and half-immersed in cement -- so inept that mockery feels mean. I have literally seen Internet review shows that were more convincing as sci-fi dramas, but dammit, Neil Johnson is just trying so hard.

It's just a shame that nothing about this works. It feels like he had a grand space opera in mind, borrowing chunks and ideas from "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "Dune," but nothing ever quite gels together. Instead it feels overstuffed and confusing, bouncing from one group of confusingly lookalike characters to another. And after Starship One crashes on Old Earth, the plot slows to a crawl, punctuated by the occasional deaths of people we don't care and women yelling at John.

And there are a thousand other little things that don't work -- the sound mixing is awful, with every click and creak clearly audible. The sets are dark, dingy and claustrophobic. The costumes look like they were assembled from the contents of a hardware store. The lighting tends to make all the actors look jaundiced. And I'm not sure why the female soldiers of the Federation are all wearing thick makeup, cleavage and "Mob Wives" hair.

And oh, the writing. Even if performed by the greats of stage and screen, the dialogue is bad enough to make your ears bleed. The Overseer is particularly bad, often scraping out profanity-laden cliches ("I am a f***ing god") in a voice that sounds like a laryngitic goat.

And of course, the acting is mesmerizingly awful ("YOU swore an OATH... of ALLEGIANCE!"). Oddly enough, a lot of the people in this movie look kind of alike. It actually becomes difficult to tell who is on what side, and when a minor character is brutally slain... it was hard to care, because I couldn't recognize her. Jacobs is the only one who sticks out... and that's only because he's the main character. He certainly doesn't have the charisma of a great leader -- although part of that is because John is a hideously flat "hero" character, whose motivations are a complete mystery. Why does he mutiny? Because INSPIRING MUSIC.

There is one thing that Johnson gets right, and that is a lot of the CGI effects. Considering the low budget this must have had, the cityscapes, holographic interfaces and some of the space battles are quite good. It's a shame the rest of it couldn't measure up to this standard.

"Starship Rising" doesn't so much end as... stop. Meaning that the sci-fi world is destined to be dive-bombed by an inevitable second part. Somehow, I suspect it won't be much better.

Phantasm
Phantasm
DVD ~ A. Michael Baldwin
Offered by Vanderbilt CA
Price: CDN$ 96.80
8 used & new from CDN$ 30.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Is this doesn't scare you..., Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Phantasm (DVD)
When you think of horror, usually you think of gore, ghosts and/or slashers.

But Don Coscarelli introduced an eerier kind of horror in "Phantasm" -- the kind that flies at you in little metallic balls and drills into your head. This low-budget horror movie quietly worms its way into your soul and exposes all sorts of little fears -- of death, loss, undeath and creepy old men -- while also spooking you with the horrors that you can't even identify.

While his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is at a funeral, Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin) sees something odd outside the funeral home -- an old man (Angus Scrimm) casually lifting the casket and singlehandedly slinging it into a hearse. Soon Mike is being stalked by the Tall Man and his gibbering, dwarfish minions in their hooded cloaks. Think undead Jawas, but much, much more primally horrifying.

Of course, Mike tries to tell Jody and their old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) what is going on, but they believe that Mike is just reacting to his brother's impending departure. So he sneaks into the Morningside Funeral Home, and comes back with the Tall Man's still-moving, yellow-bleeding finger. Finally convinced, Jody and Reggie help defend him from the Tall Man -- but what they find lurking with him is more ghastly than they could even imagine.

Reportedly Don Coscarelli originally wanted to adapt Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," but the rights weren't available to him. So instead he crafted a movie out of his own nightmares. After all, the best horror movies are about more than the trappings -- they are the ones that tap into primal terrors that lurk in the shadows of your soul, and frighten you with the unnerving wrongness of everything that is going on.

Coscarelli directs the whole film in an oddly dreamlike manner, with lots of floating voiceovers and eerie marble halls. But the dream slowly turns into a nightmare, where scuttling things come out of the dark and collapse cars on you, or drag you screaming into the graveyard. Even the pleasantly shabby 70s home isn't safe from anyone. And the climax is terror of a different kind, especially when Mike sees where the Tall Man and his minions come from.

All the actors in this were relative newbies to the craft, but they give excellent performances -- Michael Baldwin as the gawky, inquisitive teen who adores his cooler older brother, but dreads his impending departure. The fear of loss and death permeates the entire story, underpinning the whole role of Mike. He clicks well with Bill Thornbury, who has the disbelieving-older-sibling role down without being a jerk about it.

And of course, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm. Bannister isn't the central character as he is in later Phantasm films, but he gives a nice, solid, everyman performance as the boys' rock. As for Scrimm... he's every creepy old guy you ever saw in your life, encapsulated into one lanky unblinking creeper.

One slight flaw, though: the box scene. It's ripped directly from the beginning of "Dune" (it even has the same message -- I started babbling about fear being the mind-killer) and it honestly baffles me why this scene as-is is in the movie.

Don Coscarelli made a horror movie like no other with "Phantasm" -- an eerie, freaky movie haunted by the horrors that you usually can't see. You won't see anything else like it.

Space Station 76 (Bilingual)
Space Station 76 (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Katherine McGregor
Price: CDN$ 14.99
2 used & new from CDN$ 14.24

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Melodrama in space (mild spoilers), Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Space Station 76 (Bilingual) (DVD)
Imagine if Wes Anderson made a sci-fi comedy, with that delightful retro sensibility that he loves so much. Except it lacks his cinematic touch, his quirkiness, and the wry humour.

Instead, "Space Station 76" feels like a vision of The Future as imagined by a clinically depressed suburbanite from 1976 -- think "The Ice Storm" in space, with robot hands, weed and cannibalistic gerbils. It has a talented cast that doesn't have a lot to do, and seems to be trying to amuse us with constant awkwardness in the hopes that this will elicit some chuckles... which, sadly, it rarely does.

A new second-in-command, Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), is arriving on Space Station 76, which seems to just be in space to... um... I'm not entirely clear what its purpose is. The captain (Patrick Wilson) is suicidally depressed over his homo/bisexuality and the departure of the man he loved, and he's not too happy about having a female second-in-command.

And nobody else there is easier to live with. Brittle, pill-popping Misty (Marisa Coughlan) neglects her daughter and develops a nasty envy of Marlowe. She's also avoiding sex with her husband Ted (Matt Bomer wearing a "robot hand" glove), possibly because she is having an affair with Steve (Jerry O'Connell), whose perky wife Donna (Kali Rocha) is wrapped up in her new baby.

Jessica immediately forms a bond with both the sexually-frustrated Tedand his sensitive young daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers). A jealous Misty begins sabotaging Sunshine's friendship, and as the Christmas party approaches, the tensions among the crew reach a boiling point. Will anything actually get resolved, or will everything just continue as-is?

The most important aspect of science fiction is to imagine what might happen, to look forward. "Space Station 76" looks back instead -- the attitudes and angst of the 1970s transplanted into the science fiction settings that a movie from the 1970s might have had. It has very of-that-period viewpoints on things like women in positions of authority, sexuality, pill-popping housewives, affairs and all that sort of things. There are even CIGARETTES and VALIUM on the space station of Teh Future.

And this could have worked.... if I had the faintest idea what writer/director Jack Plotnick was aiming for. It's too serious to be wry, too depressing to be funny (even bleakly funny), too goofy to be dramatic, and too awkward to be clever. I've seen it billed as a "black comedy," but those usually have... something to elicit even a chuckle.

Admittedly there are some mildly funny moments (the whole robot-hand-grabbing-the-breast scene, or the toaster scene), but too often Plotnick draws potentially funny scenes out until they seem limp and devoid of energy. Or else he lingers on running non-gags that just feel squirmingly uncomfortable (the whole subplot about the mother gerbil killing her babies).

And while he has a cute aesthetic for the 70s-style future -- think a cheaper version of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," with lots of white walls and magic food dispensers -- the aesthetic seems to be all the movie has. The characters just float around, grate on each other, have a yelling match, and... nothing comes of it. It simply ends, with everyone (except perhaps the captain) still miserable and loathing each other.

It also tragically misuses most of its cast. Patrick Wilson is the only adult actor who has anything to actually chew on, playing a depressed, lonely commander hiding his sexuality (remember, 1970s sensibilities) and mourning rejection by the man he loved.

But sadly, Wilson is the only one whose character even has an arc. Liv Tyler is clearly trying hard with her character, but doesn't seem entirely sure who Jessica is or where she's coming from -- Jessica's only defining characteristic is a non-functioning uterus. Matt Bomer mostly smokes weed, flirts with Tyler and stares vacantly at naked women floating in space. O'Connell has nothing to do. And Marisa Coughlan is just a two-dimensional unhappy suburban wife... but in space, which makes that totally not a cliche.

"Space Station 76" is a mass of squandered opportunities -- while the retro-SF setting is interesting, it lacks actual storylines or developed characters. At the end you're where the characters are -- floating in space, bored and unhappy.

Red Rising: Book I of The Red Rising Trilogy
Red Rising: Book I of The Red Rising Trilogy
by Pierce Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 15.68
33 used & new from CDN$ 9.17

4.0 out of 5 stars For ours, a vale of better dreams, Jan. 11 2015
In the distant future, humanity has been divided into different Colored castes -- and the Red workers who slave and die in the bowels of Mars are at the bottom of the totem pole.

But one of them is destined to rise to the pinnacle in "Red Rising," the first book of Pierce Brown's tightly-wound sci-fi trilogy. While Brown's prose can be a little stilted at times, he brings a lot of raw, visceral intensity to his story about a teenage hero rising to the height of his civilization, and discovering how horrible and bloody it can be.

As a Helldiver of Lykos, Darrow's life is a hard one -- the Reds struggling to terraform Mars live in grinding poverty, with only short lives and nasty injuries to look forward to. His beloved wife Eo dreams of rebelling against the social order, but Darrow is content to let things be...

... until Eo is executed, and Darrow is left for dead. He's rescued by the Sons of Ares, a rebellious cadre who want to rebel against their Gold overlords. They reveal to Darrow that Mars has ALREADY been terraformed into a thriving civilization ruled over by Golds and Silvers, and the Reds are the slaves who support them. Enraged, he agrees to their plan -- they will transform him from a Red into a Gold, and he will gain power to break the Gold domination from within.

Over the months that follow, Darrow is transformed -- he's carved into physical perfection, enhanced, educated and even given golden hair and eyes. But it turns out that was the easy part. His first tests at the Institute are ones where the strong kill the weak, and the students' first assignment is a medieval clash of death, rape and theft. Darrow not only has to keep his true identity a secret -- now he has to stay alive.

"Red Rising" feels like the next step after "The Hunger Games" -- a dystopian sci-fi about an impoverished teen rising up against a cruel government, and having to take part in a brutal "game" for supremacy. But this story takes it one step further. The stakes are higher, the violence more bloody and brutal, and the protagonist more steeped in tragedy (he's forced to hold his wife still while she's hanged).

And though Darrow is technically a teen hero, he doesn't act like it. Most young-adult heroes act and think pretty much like teens in our society, but Brown does the exact opposite. The Reds live short, dangerous lives. By their culture's standards, Darrow is already a grown man -- and he thinks like it, acts like it, and has all the passion, intensity and drive of a man. Though he is unswayed from his mission of vengeance, he gradually sees that some of the Golds are not just faceless tyrants.

Brown also crafts a pretty interesting universe -- it seems to be a combination of the Roman Empire and a color-coded caste system. It's brutal yet luxurious, decadent yet terrifyingly cold. And ideas like carving -- which can give you wings, extra fingers or a tail -- are woven seamlessly into the story, so that it never feels like he's just showing off all the cool ideas he had.

The biggest problem is that Brown's writing can be stilted into too-short sentences ("You’re mad.” "Thank you.” “I assume you misspoke; pray repeat yourself"). But he pours lots of intensity into his writing, with huge splashes of blood and vivid emotions, and his descriptive prose can be lovely in a lean, muscular way ("Mist blankets all, even the thick forests that lie like homespun quilts over the foothills").

"Red Rising" has some noob roughness, but it's a rousing, vibrant debut novel that leaves you eagerly awaiting whatever is coming for Darrow. Bravo, Pierce Brown.

Fiendish
Fiendish
by Brenna Yovanoff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 14.43
38 used & new from CDN$ 11.43

3.0 out of 5 stars “Well, this is a devilish state of affairs”, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Fiendish (Hardcover)
Of the three Merry Sisters of Fate, Brenna Yovanoff is the most enigmatic. Her books are all standalones, with odd twists on typical urban fantasy stuff -- ghosts, fairies and angels.

And "Fiendish" continues this tradition with her dark, ropy, hauntingly bloody take on Southern gothic, in a town divided by "craft" and the terrible secrets that lurk in the woods -- "fiends" and strange warped magic that threatens everyone. The biggest problem is that very little is explained, and the first third of the book feels like it had some vital chapters chopped out of the beginning, leaving it quite confusing.

For the past decade, Clementine Devore has been trapped in a cellar, with her eyes sewn shut, a trickbag at her throat, and roots growing over her body. She doesn't remember how she got there or who did this to her. Then Fisher and his gang find her, and bring her back to her skeletal Aunt Myloria... who doesn't remember that she exists. Fortunately her cousin Shiny still does, and she begins reintroducing Clementine to the world she left behind.

But that world isn't quite what it was. Her mother is dead. Her house is a ruin filled with caged animals. And something terrible happened years ago, which turned the townfolk into a ravening mob against the folk-magic "craft" families.

As Clementine tries to get used to this new town, she begins to realize that the source of the trouble may be the Hollow, a wild place of twisted magic where fiends and monstrous creatures roam. And she feels a connection to bad-boy Fisher that may be more than romance -- they're both part of a wild, uncontrollable magic that could destroy everything in the town. The reckoning is coming, and they may not be able to stop it.

The biggest problem with "Fiendish" is that it seems to start a few chapters too late. It's one of those books that simply lobs its characters and magical system at the reader without explanation or introduction -- the characters just start talking about "craft" or people we haven't seen yet, and the reader is left to frantically try to catch up. While Yovanoff weaves the explanations into the story, and eventually reveals everything by the end, it's very confusing and distracting as you try to figure out exactly what "craft" is and what it consists of.

And that distraction is even worse because it pulls you away from Yovanoff's haunting, sublimely-pretty writing ("Her smile was a fixed, blazing thing that burned through her eyes and shone in her skin like starlight"). She creates a very Appalachian kind of community, with rickety wooden houses and wild woods where teens can roam freely -- it's quite different from the shiny, sleek Southern-belle approach that most authors have when they depict the deep South.

And the magic in it is equally unique -- a gnarled, knotted, thorny kind of hoodoo magic, where blazing pale fiends wander through the twisted darkness of the Hollow. Things have to be buried in the earth to neutralize their magic, and stuff going wrong results in very strange occurrences (stone tomato!). It's a very earthy, gritty kind of magical system, and it feels less about spells and rituals than it does the force of will and nature.

Clementine takes awhile to full flower -- for the first half of the book, she seems to be just drifting along, relearning everything she once knew about her town. It doesn't help that she can't remember large chunks of her past. But she starts growing some spine after becoming involved with Fisher, a wild bad boy whose mysterious past and adventures in the Hollow make him a pariah.

And in that second half, the whole cast suddenly knits completely, where they were just sort of floating free before -- Fisher, Clementine, the fiery and opinionated Shiny, the timid abused Davenport. They develop a purpose in the story, and everything just gels.

"Fiendish" struggles in the first half, because it doesn't quite know how to exposit properly in its setup. But if you can overlook that flaw, the spellbinding magical system and gritty, realistic setting make it a genuinely haunting read.

The Machine (La Machine) (Bilingual)
The Machine (La Machine) (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Caity Lotz
Offered by Warehouse105
Price: CDN$ 12.74
7 used & new from CDN$ 9.48

4.0 out of 5 stars You're a machine, Jan. 11 2015
How much of a person's brain can be replaced with technology before they are no longer human? If a machine can learn and grow, is it only a machine?

With medical and computer technology reaching forward into sci-fi territory, these are actual questions that we may one day have to ask ourselves. And they are are some of the questions that pop up in "The Machine." While the main plot is one that has been done before, it's handled with a kind of brutal delicacy, some strong direction and powerful acting by Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz.

In the not-too-distant-future (next Sunday A.D.), Britain is embroiled in a cold war with China. Scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is in charge of giving cybernetic implants to brain-damaged soldiers; while they seem to become mute soon after, they regain all their physical and mental faculties. He hopes that he can use this technology on his daughter, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disorder.

Then he meets Ava (Caity Lotz), a brilliant young scientist who has created an A.I. which is almost human. With her help, Vincent begins work on a sentient android by scanning her brain into a quantum computer... and after she's unexpectedly murdered, Vincent uses her likeness and brain scan for The Machine (also played by Caity Lotz), a gynoid who is almost indistinguishable from a human.

In fact, she's a little TOO human -- she feels emotions like fear, love and remorse, and has a sense of morality that Vincent encourages. She also is capable of communicating with the cyborgs. Since the sleazy government/corporate boss Thomson (Denis Lawson) wants a mindless killing machine, he's not too pleased by this. So he demands that Vincent lobotomize away Machine's humanity.

The plot of "The Machine" is one we've seen before -- someone builds a robot who turns out to be more human than expected -- but Caradog W. James does an excellent job without being too preachy. It certainly helps that he includes some very realistic aspects to the story, such as conflicts with China and medical advances that are actually plausible (such as prosthetic limbs connected to the nervous system).

And James uses that bedrock to build a very simple yet emotionally complicated story, which slinks along in moody, tense scenes that click together by the end. The movie is rather slow at times, focusing mostly on Vincent discovering how human Machine is while Thomson tries to corrupt her. After so many quiet scenes, the gruesome and chaotic climax comes as a bit of a shock.

The movie was made for less than a million pounds, and at times it shows -- almost the entire story takes place in a military base, with some generic hallways and a big leaky airline hangar. However, the special effects are beautifully done, and James cloaks the bleak sets in shadows and bright lights, puddles of glimmering water and red, foggy alert lights.

This is also a movie that heavily relies on its actors, and both Stephens and Lotz are absolutely sublime here. Stephens plays Vincent as a prickly, worn-out man whose only enthusiasm seems to be for saving his daughter, until he encounters the pure humanity of Machine. Lotz is also quite excellent -- she plays Machine with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder at the world, which she maintains even after coming face-to-face with its horrors ("I just have to make you dead inside, like you tried to make me").

There's also a good supporting role for Pooneh Hajimohammadi, who gives an effectively silent performance as the leader of the cyborgs. And Lawson also deserves some praise for being a very plausibly despicable villain -- like the real-life military, he doesn't care about wounded veterans or innocent people. He just wants obedient super-soldiers and new ways to kill. It's all too realistic.

While the concept is not new, "The Machine" is a slow, powerful little sci-fi movie that sets itself in a chillingly plausible future world. If nothing else, watch it for Stephens and Lotz's excellent performances.

The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains: A Tale Of Travel And D
The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains: A Tale Of Travel And D
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 16.92
46 used & new from CDN$ 12.15

4.0 out of 5 stars “I see death in your past and death in your future.”, Jan. 11 2015
At first glance, this looks like a children's book.

But if you look at the skull in the mountainside, and the title... not so much. No, "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds" is one of Neil Gaiman's many short stories, here fleshed out with Eddie Campbell's odd assortment of illustrations and comics -- a dark, murky little tale of Scotland, revenge and the fantastical.

An unnamed Scottish dwarf approaches a former reaver, Callum MacInnes, to help him find a certain cave on the Misty Isle. The cave is said to be filled with gold, and only a few people can find it. The two men journey to that island and make their way to the cave -- but Callum warns his employer that the gold inside has a strange curse on it, which makes everything in life "less." But the dwarf's goal isn't mere gold -- he wants revenge, and he will do whatever it takes to get it.

Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest storytellers alive at telling us tales of dark, strange places occupied by otherworldly creatures. "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a sort of fairy tale, and it's a picture book... but it's not really the kind that you give to kids. Oh, a kid could read it, but it's a very dark, grim tale about poetic revenge, murder and a very spooky cave-dwelling creature.

This is also one of those stories that could be set in any time period or any place. Gaiman chooses the Jacobean era of Scottish history, with the dwarf's excuse that he wants the gold so he can help restore the King Over The Water. Lots of windblown heather, mist, stony cliffs and a hint of faery goings-on (the protagonist refers to his father as being "from the West," and I don't think he meant the Americas).

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Gaiman keeps you guessing what exactly is going on throughout the story. It's obvious that SOMETHING is unsaid between these men (especially when Callum threatens the dwarf with a knife while he's sleeping) but he

And since this is a short story instead of a full-length novella, Gaiman's work is augmented by Eddie Campbell's illustrations -- sometimes it's just a swath of color, sometimes pictures, and sometimes he even creates little graphic-novel panels.

And those pictures bring an extra splash of life to "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds," a powerful little story from a master storyteller. Just don't tell it to your kids before bedtime.

Emma
Emma
by Jane Austen
Edition: Flexibound
Price: CDN$ 14.40
36 used & new from CDN$ 11.62

5.0 out of 5 stars It's such a happiness when good people get together, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Emma (Flexibound)
"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition" is a suitable heroine for Jane Austen's lightest, frothiest novel. While "Emma" is not nearly as dramatic as Austen's other works, it is an enchanting little comedy of manners in which a young woman with the best intentions meddles in others' love lives... with only the faintest idea of how people (including herself) actually feel.

After matchmaking her governess Miss Taylor, Emma Woodhouse considers herself a natural at bringing people together. She soon becomes best buddies with Harriet, a sweet (if not very bright) young woman who is the "natural daughter of somebody." Emma becomes determined to pair Harriet with someone deserving of her (even derailing a gentleman-farmer's proposal), such as the smarmy, charming Mr. Elton. When Emma's latest attempt falls apart, she finds that getting someone OUT of love is a lot harder than getting them INTO it.

At around the same time, two people that Emma has heard about her entire life have arrived -- the charming Frank Churchill, and the reserved, remote Miss Jane Fairfax (along with rumors of a married man's interest in her). Emma begins a flirtatious friendship with Frank, but for some reason is unable to get close to Miss Fairfax. As she navigates the secrets and rumors of other people's romantic lives, she begins to realize who she has been in love with all along.

Out of all Jane Austen's books, "Emma" is the frothiest and lightest -- there aren't any major scandals, lives ruined, reputations destroyed, financial crises or sinister schemes. There's just a little intertwined circle of people living in a country village, and how one young woman tries to rearrange them in the manner that she genuinely thinks is best. Of course, in true comedy style everything goes completely wrong.

And despite the formal stuffiness of the time, Austen wrote the book in a languidly sunny style, threading it with a complex web of cleverly orchestrated rumors and romantic tangles. There's some moments of seriousness (such as Emma's rudeness to kind, silly Miss Bates), but it's also laced with some entertaining dialogue ("Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way") and barbed humor (the ridiculous and obnoxious Mrs. Elton).

Modern readers tend to be unfairly squicked by the idea of Emma falling for a guy who's known her literally all her life, but Austen makes the subtle relationship between Knightley and Emma one of affectionate bickering and beautiful romantic moments ("If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me").

Emma is a character who is likable despite her flaws -- she's young, bright, well-meaning and assured of her own knowledge of the human heart, but also naive and sometimes snobbish. She flits around like a clumsy butterfly, but is endearing even when she screws up. Mr. Knightley is her ideal counterpoint, being enjoyably blunt and sharp-witted at all times. And there's a fairly colorful supporting cast -- Emma's neurotic but sweet dad, her kindly ex-governess, the charming Frank, the fluttery Miss Bates, and even the smarmy Mr. Elton and his bulldozing wife.

"Emma" is the most lightweight and openly comedic of all Jane Austen's novels, with a likable (if clueless) heroine and a multilayered plot full of half-hidden feelings. A lesser delight.

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