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Elementary: Season 1
Elementary: Season 1
DVD ~ Lucy Liu
Price: CDN$ 23.99
26 used & new from CDN$ 18.00

4.0 out of 5 stars I'm waiting for you to challenge me and say that's ridiculous, Jan. 31 2015
This review is from: Elementary: Season 1 (DVD)
Ever heard of an alternate-universe fanfic? That is when the characters of a canonical story are transplanted into another time/place/plot/universe.

And that is what "Elementary" feels like -- the greatest detective Sherlock Holmes, except he's a recovering addict living in modern New York City. And Watson is a woman. It sounds like a gimmick, or a cheap American knock-off of the British "Sherlock" series, but it ends up being a rather solid mystery series that creates its own new, rather well-written mysteries for a modernized Great Detective to solve.

Former doctor Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is hired to be the sober companion of Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), a wealthy tattooed Englishman who just got out of rehab. And she soon discovers that life is a little weird with him -- he has a massive intellect and a disciplined mind, but often acts and speaks inappropriately. Furthermore, he's a sort of consultant to the NYPD Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn) whenever a weird or baffling case comes up.

The biggest problem with the series is that most episodes are of the "one-off crime figured out in forty minutes" variety -- a plane crash with a murder victim among them, an "angel of death" roaming a hospital, a woman in a coma who somehow murdered two people, a strange theft in a blizzard, a boy abducted by the "Balloon Man," a bomb triggered years late, the abduction of Holmes' ex-dealer's daughter, an impossible bank robbery, a hotel manager with some secrets, a serial killer taunting a profiler, a conspiracy theorist's murder, a millionaire who believes he was infected with a genetic disease, and more.

But the cases take a dark turn when Holmes discovers that "M." (Vinnie Jones) is in the US, and seeks revenge on the man who seemingly murdered the only woman he ever loved. As he tries to uncover the secret of the villainous Moriarty, he uncovers a shocking discovery about this mastermind.

"Elementary Season 1" is not really based on the novels and short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These stories are pretty much original, but they do a pretty good job of shifting the METHOD of Holmes into a modern setting of smart phones, forensic science and the Internet. It's definitely above the grade of most mystery/crime TV shows, since the very presence of Sherlock Holmes demands a higher quality of writing and a better crop of mysteries.

Instead of standard crimes, it's all about the tiny, seemingly inconsequential details or bits of knowledge that only Holmes can bring to light. For instance, he clues in on the existence of a corpse drywalled into a house by a little bit of mold and a few photographs. There's with lots of clever banter between Holmes and Watson ("How did you know he had an affair?" "Google. Not everything is deducible") and some rather gruesome murders.

And while most of the crimes are one-off cases, there are some characters and situations woven into the storyline. As with most adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, he's got a feud with Moriarty and a weird romantic thing with Irene Adler. Furthermore, the writers weave in some modern twists on Holmes' drug use, Ms. Hudson (a beautiful transsexual woman with amazing Greek/cleaning skills) and the way Holmes pursues knowledge (it involves several TVs).

To be fair, I expected the casting of a woman as Watson to be just an excuse for bad romantic tension. But except for a few sex jokes, Lucy Liu's Watson is presented the same way that a man would be -- she's a smart, tough, capable person who grounds Holmes. She is often driven slightly insane by his egotism and his tendency towards weird, erratic behavior, but she also clearly cares deeply about his fragile well-being.

And Jonny Lee Miller is an excellent Sherlock -- he plays Sherlock as a genius who is slightly brittle from years of grief and drug abuse, mentally disciplined by careful practice, and kind of socially inept but capable of comprehending more about others than people realize. Miller really conveys the sense of kinetic, wild energy that a proper Holmes should, the sense that he's a font of knowledge just ready to overflow all over your floor.

"Elementary Season 1" is a strong adaptation of the Great Detective -- while it doesn't adapt the actual stories of Doyle, it does a very solid job of adapting the IDEAS. And Miller and Liu make an excellent Sherlock and Watson.

Gravity Falls: Even Stranger (Bilingual)
Gravity Falls: Even Stranger (Bilingual)
Price: CDN$ 9.97
25 used & new from CDN$ 6.48

5.0 out of 5 stars Everything is different now!, Jan. 28 2015
Ah, Gravity Falls -- a quaint, quirky little town that is sort of like Twin Peaks as imagined by a six-year-old on a sugar high. The kind of place where the impossible happens frequently, usually with wacky results.

And "Gravity Falls: Even Stranger" brings us another round of adventures for the Pine kids, ranging from a bottomless hole to a roaming time traveler who ends up in a lot of trouble. Creator/voice actor Alex Hirsch is still churning out stories of sublimely high quality, with gloriously weird problems, great dialogue ("You're so organized. Show me that checklist again!") and jokes that may be even funnier to adults than children.

Dipper's ongoing efforts to woo Wendy keep going awry. First, he tries to photocopy himself and ends up with an army of angry Dipper clones during a wild party. Then a day at the fair goes awry when he and Mabel encounter a time-traveler, whose magical tape-measure he hopes to use to win a toy for Wendy... except they end up timeskipping to all the wrong "whens," and Mabel may lose her amazing new pet. And of course, he summons a "Mortal Kombat"-style video-game character to beat up Robbie... but learns that he might have opened a Pandora's box.

Other fun adventures in Gravity Falls:
*Pioneer's Day takes an unexpected turn when the twins discover that the town's founder is a lie, based in a very old conspiracy locked in a prison of peanut brittle!
*Dipper worries about Mabel's growth spurt, and comes up with a bizarre way to equal her height: crystals that make you change size! Too bad Li'l Gideon is back.
*Soos, Stan and the kids fall into a bottomless pit. While they're falling, they exchange bizarre stories (which aren't quite long enough to be episodes proper) to pass the time.
*Mabel gets to be boss of the Mystery Shack to prove that being nice and lenient works better than crabbiness, and discovers that it's not as easy as it looks.
*Summerween (like Halloween, but with watermelons instead of pumpkins) comes to Gravity Falls, but Dipper hopes to be seen as more adult by not trick-or-treating. Instead he offends the Summerween Trickster, and must provide a certain number of candies or be eaten.

One of the best aspects of "Gravity Falls" is how it's clearly a kids' show, but cleverly written enough that adults can enjoy it as more than a kid's cartoon show that doesn't make you want to stab yourself in the face with a fork. Some of the jokes are actually funnier to adults than they are to kids ("In Gravity Falls it used to be legal to marry woodpeckers." "Oh, it's still legal. VERY legal").

And while it has some lessons like "accept your silliness," there's also some sly subversion of the usual ones ("Man, revenge is underrated. That felt awesome!"). No, the real focus here is on Dipper and Mabel having wacky adventures, defending each other from cruel blondes, government conspiracies, Li'l Gideon, and the ongoing woes of the journal's secrets. It's the kind of show that you can imagine a kid dreaming up, where you could get zapped into a pinball machine and have to ride a mine cart to thwart its evil master.

The one irritating aspect of the story is Dipper's ongoing obsession with Wendy -- while it's natural for pre-teen boys to start developing crushes, it kind of takes over some of the stories. Things are more entertaining when it focuses on prissy, organized Dipper and the gloriously wacky, nacho-earringed Mabel, human hamster Soos and the goblin-like senior Grunkle Stan. And we have some fun supporting characters like Mabel's friends Candy and Grenda, the snooty Pacifica, Old Man McGucket, and of course Gideon (who is like an evil little steamed dumpling with lots of hair product).

"Gravity Falls: Even Stranger" is another delectable little round of wacky, well-written tales of magic, mayhem, and pigs won at a carnival. How about a full season set?

Turn: Washington's Spies
Turn: Washington's Spies
DVD ~ Jamie Bell
Price: CDN$ 9.99
25 used & new from CDN$ 9.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Turn to the other side, Jan. 27 2015
This review is from: Turn: Washington's Spies (DVD)
People don't generally imagine spies being a part of the American Revolution. It's kind of a grubby, inglorious business compared to an army of ragged, liberty-loving soldiers following George Washington into battle.

But there were spies in the American Revolution, just like in any war. And those oft-ignored heroes are the subject of "Turn," based on Alexander Rose’s book "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring." It's a bit slow-moving but suspenseful and intricate, depicting both the colonists and the British with sympathy and complexity... except that I ended up utterly loathing the main character.

The year is 1776, and the war in the American colonies seems to be all but over. Struggling farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is trying to covertly sell his cabbages when he's enlisted by a couple of old friends, Benjamin Talmadge (Seth Numrich) and the roguish Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), as a spy for the colonial rebels. Since Abe's father is a loyalist Magistrate and friendly with the Setauket army commander, Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman), he's in the perfect position to find out important information and pass it on. It's also a little awkward, since another member of the spy ring is Anna Strong (Heather Lind), his ex-fiancee.

Unfortunately, Abe's absence has incriminated him in the murder of a redcoat officer, and the vicious Captain John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) is sure he's involved. Anna is also a suspect, even as her husband is dragged off to a prison ship and she's forced to sell their tavern.

As the months go by, Abe finds himself walking a tightrope of suspicion and subterfuge, smuggling messages to Benjamin, who tries to convince his superiors to take the Setauket messages seriously. Though General Washington (Ian Kahn) and his army are in trouble, the spy ring may be what wins the war for them. But when the treacherous Simcoe frames the rebels -- and several Setauket townsfolk -- for the attempted murder of the Major, the town becomes the battleground between the patriots and the Tories.

"Turn" requires a certain measure of patience -- it has several subplots that twist together right from the series' beginning. We have former slaves spying on New York officers, the conflicts within the patriot intelligence section, the murder of the dead officer, the tombstones, the capture and release of Simcoe, eggs with secret messages (seriously), the unveiling of treachery on both sides, and of course all the interpersonal drama in Setauket (mostly having to do with Abe lusting after his ex, neglecting his wife, feuding with a jealous Simcoe and fighting with his dad). All in ten episodes.

With all that to juggle, the pace can be rather slow, especially in the first half. At times, it feels like the characters aren't doing much... but it seems to finish setting the stage when George Washington suddenly appears. After that, things become tighter and more suspenseful, with some shocking twists (Abe being kidnapped by an insane patriot deserter) and some rivetingly tense fights in cottages, forests and the streets.

Unfortunately... I ended up hating Abe. Jamie Bell does an excellent job conveying everything his character is supposed to feel, and he's a very believable "everyman" who seems innocuous enough that he would never be suspected as a spy... but he's also rather whiny, immature and selfish. And when he embarks on an affair with his old flame Anna, knowing the pain Mary is feeling, it killed whatever shreds of sympathy I had for him. Apparently the excuse is that he only married her because he felt "guilty"... nope, sorry, not good enough.

It's too bad, because all the other characters are rather well-done. Both loyalists (Mary, Richard) and patriots (Benjamin, Caleb) are given three-dimensional personalities, with reasons for feeling and believing as they do. It's not a good vs. evil conflict, but a question of differing values and beliefs -- within towns, communities and even families. And that makes it feel like a real tragedy, that good people can lie and be torn apart by differing beliefs.

So we have some solid supporting roles for the suitably intense, charismatic Kahn, a scraggly Angus Macfadyen, Lind, Meegan Warner and Kevin R. McNally. Even the British soldiers are (mostly) given some dimensions. Gorman's Hewlett is condescending and snooty, but we see he genuinely hates the idea of ANYONE on either side being hurt or killed. JJ Feild also has a good supporting role as John Andre (whom the real-life Washington called "more unfortunate than criminal"), who is probably the kindest and most likable Brit in the whole series. The flipside is Simcoe, a sneering, fleering, bloodthirsty sociopath who has a "kill 'em all and salt the ground where they lie" approach to the patriots.

"Turn Season 1" reveals a side of the American Revolution that is rarely seen -- the spies and subterfuge. It's slow for the first half, but the excellent actors and well-developed characters on both sides make it a wrenching, tense experience.

Big Eyes (Bilingual)
Big Eyes (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Amy Adams
Price: CDN$ 14.88
10 used & new from CDN$ 10.50

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When I see those "Big Eyes", Jan. 26 2015
This review is from: Big Eyes (Bilingual) (DVD)
Tim Burton has kind of lost it in recent years. He's had too much bad comic relief, too much pancake makeup, and too many roles where Johnny Depp mugs for the camera like a deranged lemur.

But "Big Eyes" may hint that he's gotten his creative spark back. This biographical movie about artist Margaret Keane is a much more subdued, character-driven piece -- while Burton's darker and/or over-the-top sensibilities occasionally surface, it's in a more subtle, believable way. And Amy Adams gives a sublime performance, completely vanishing into the persona of the trembly-voiced, anxious woman who paints big-eyed children to express her own torment.

After leaving her cheating husband, Margaret (Adams) and her daughter begin a new life for themselves. Her only real skill is painting, and her paintings catch the eye of the more outgoing, charismatic "Sunday painter" Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who paints shallow, mediocre cityscapes. Eventually they marry, and Walter begins trying to sell their artwork to galleries and clubs. When people start noticing Margaret's paintings -- all of large-eyed, tragic-looking waifs -- Walter takes credit for them himself.

Margaret is understandably upset by this, but Walter convinces her to support the ruse -- first by claiming that her paintings wouldn't sell otherwise, and then by pointing out that they are engaging in fraud and she'll end up in jail. So Margaret is sent off to a locked room to paint every day, churning out more and more pictures of "big eyes."

Walter's business acumen turns Margaret's art into a small empire, lavishing the pictures on all the right people and churning out inexpensive prints. But Margaret's simmering resentment comes to a boil as she realizes that her increasingly abusive husband is not just a con man, but an artistic fraud as well. And after he drives her away, she is inspired to finally reveal the truth about her paintings -- only for Walter to fight her back in court.

"Big Eyes" is probably the most "conventional" movie Burton has done in a long time, since most of it is handled in a smooth, elegant but fairly non-goth-kitschy style. There are many sunny windows full of light, smooth white buildings in California and colorful gardens filled with Hawaiian blooms, not to mention the palatial modern house of the Keanes. The darkest place in the whole movie is a nightclub, and at times it feels like Burton is holding back a little too much.

However, it's still recognizably Burton. For instance, one scene has Margaret wandering through a grocery store, having a bizarre hallucination where everyone around her has... BIG EYES. Big, spooky, zombie-like painted eyes. Yes, she finds this as terrifying as I do. In fact, the whole "big eyes" art style, with its dark eerie quality and huge eyes, seems like a natural focus for Burton's style, and it adds the note of gothic whimsy to the movie without being over-the-top about it.

But most of the darkness comes from the slow emotional imprisonment of Margaret. She is trapped in a soul-choking web of lies and finally abuse, which start out small and seemingly innocuous, but which accelerate little by little until she's being chased through the house by a grinning, drunken Walter, who tries to ignite the cans of turpentine in her studio. Yet oddly, Burton finds some grotesque humor in the story, mostly from Walter's increasingly delusional insistence that he's the artist -- the climactic courtroom scene is a masterpiece of uncomfortable weirdness, topped by the gloriously irritable judge.

Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of her entire career here -- she vanishes into the doe-eyed, platinum-haired Margaret as if she were putting on a diving suit. Here Margaret is a fragile, shy creature who keeps trying to do the right thing, and channels all the unhappiness she feels into her big-eyed children. Through subtle acting, she conveys the flickers of angry strength that Margaret is starting to feel, the angry bitterness, and finally the quiet triumph of an artist who has reclaimed her work before the world.

And yes, Burton does let us know (via the narrator's breezy sum-ups) that Margaret's life was made even harder because of the times she lived in, when men dominated women all the time and women were taught to just smile and put up with it. But thankfully, he doesn't belabor the point with straw men or "wimmenz can do stuff too!" speeches.

The other half of the equation is Christoph Waltz. He is absolutely terrifying here -- he has the charm and charisma to make an utterly plausible sociopathic liar, but from the beginning there are hints that he is bad news. There's a subtle shift in Waltz's acting over time, where his wide friendly smiles become more manic, toothy grins with wild empty eyes. And his wild imagination tipples right over into borderline nutbagginess when he turns the courtroom into a one-man show of filibustering, talking to himself, and constant celebrity name-dropping.

While Tim Burton is perhaps a little TOO restrained sometimes, "Big Eyes" is a delightful little movie with top-notch acting from both Waltz and Adams. It's unnerving, funny and -- for Burton -- quite subtle.

The Young Victoria
The Young Victoria
DVD ~ Emily Blunt
Price: CDN$ 5.97
16 used & new from CDN$ 2.48

4.0 out of 5 stars The queen and the woman, Jan. 26 2015
This review is from: The Young Victoria (DVD)
Throughout history, most royal marriages have been between people who tolerated each other at best, passionately hated each other at worst (seriously, google King George IV and his views on HIS wife). Romantic love was saved for others.

One of the rare exceptions was Queen Victoria and her beloved husband Prince Albert. And while their marriage was based on a once-in-a-lifetime love, "The Young Victoria" pays attention to ALL the factors that brought these two together and made them effective, forward-thinking rulers -- love, politics and Victoria's oppressively weird childhood. A lot is resting on Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, and they both deliver excellent performances.

Young Princess Victoria (Blunt) has been raised almost in isolation, smothered and harassed by her dim-witted mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her mother's abusive, power-hungry comptroller Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). The sickly king (Jim Broadbent) is not happy about this, especially since Conroy is constantly trying to bully Victoria into signing a regency agreement, which would allow her mother (and him) to effectively rule the empire when she eventually becomes queen.

Fortunately, Victoria is too intelligent and strong-willed, forming an alliance with Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) to protect herself. UNfortunately, her cultivated naiveté means that everyone around her considers her easy to manipulate for their own ends.

However, the English nobility are not the only people trying to manipulate her. Her uncle Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) and Baron Stockmar (Jesper Christensen) want a Coburg male to marry and control Victoria, so they send off the handsome, cultured Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Albert isn't really comfortable with this, but he begins to fall genuinely in love with Victoria -- and she with him, once he drops the coaching of Baron Stockmar.

Then the king dies, and Victoria becomes the queen -- only to discover that even small decisions (choosing her ladies-in-waiting) have massive political repercussions that undermine the public's confidence in their new monarch. She also continues corresponding with Albert, who has some ideas for the betterment of Britain -- specifically, for the commonfolk that Victoria has been told to ignore. When they finally do marry, it's not for the political gain of others... but for themselves.

"The Young Victoria" is.... well, it's a story about love winning over politics. The story follows two young people trapped in political webs like two helpless flies, breaking free and finding love with one another as leaders, rather than as pawns. And for the most part, it's based on reality -- Victoria did love her husband so dearly that she had his clothes laid out after his death, and Albert was really a forward-thinker who promoted many causes now taken for granted.

It also presents 19th-century English politics in a fairly easy-to-understand format, for people who don't know much about early Victorian political climes. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does a pleasant but nondescript job here, although he presents the different facets of royal life through light -- Victoria's childhood is murky and closed-off, German rooms are all stark light and shadow, and Buckingham Palace is bright with with gold and glass. At times the pace can be slow, but the intertwining of different political plots with the burgeoning romance keeps it from getting sluggish.

The biggest problem with "The Young Victoria" is that, as with many historical movies, it does play fast-and-loose with some details for the sake of drama. For instance, while Victoria and Albert were shot AT a few times, Albert was never near-fatally wounded and dragged bleeding through the palace. But it makes a nice climax.

But a lot of the movie rests on the shoulders of Blunt and Friend. And they have charming chemistry, moving from the awkward adolescent crush of their first meeting to the strong bond between two co-rulers. Blunt is quite good as a vulnerable young girl who can also be strong and decisive, and she's backed by solid performances by Richardson, Broadbent, Bettany as a rather manipulative but not unkind Melbourne, Julian Glover, and many others.

But Friend deserves special praise for his depiction of Albert. His Albert is intelligent, attractive and more aware of the world than Victoria, and the movie makes a point of noting his passionate devotion to social reform, science and art. He brings a sweet vulnerability to the earnest, dashing young prince, who comes to love Victoria -- and though her, England -- and desire to have the ability to make decisions beyond that of a mere consort.

"The Young Victoria" can be slow going, but it's also a beautiful, well-performed movie, highlighting both the romance and the politics with a deft hand (although it sometimes goes too far with the embellishments).

Pride (Bilingual)
Pride (Bilingual)
Price: CDN$ 14.88
10 used & new from CDN$ 11.35

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For they are women's children, Jan. 24 2015
This review is from: Pride (Bilingual) (DVD)
You know what oft-used phrase sends me screaming for the hills, determined to hide until the horrors are over? "Heartwarming true story."

Usually it means a sappy, sentimental tale with inspiring music and lots of emotional manipulation. But in the case of "Pride," you get a hilarious, oddball story about two very different groups of people coming together and forming an unshakeable bond -- specifically, striking coal miners and 1980s gay activists. It's a warm, pleasant look at a difficult time, dealing with heavy topics like work strikes, AIDS and government oppression without becoming preachy.

In 1984, British miners were on strike, much to the displeasure of the Thatcher administration. So gay activist Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) had a brainstorm: since both miners and gays were being oppressed by the government, why not support each other in their fights? So with a band of friends, he formed Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (yeah, bisexuals and transexuals might as well not exist in this movie... kind of like the real-life movement), and began taking donations for the miners' fight during their parades.

Then they contact the miners of the small Welsh town of Onllwyn, who are taken aback by the seemingly random support from a gay/lesbian alliance. After some initial awkwardness, the two groups start getting along -- the gay people help the stolid mining folk loosen up and open their minds, and the mining folk give the gay people the acceptance and familial bonds that they may have been missing. But a few miners aren't willing to accept the gays and lesbians, even if it means wrecking their own political movement's chances at success.

A lot of people talk about how it is easy to accept people who are very different from you, but "Pride" demonstrates that sometimes it takes a little unselfish goodwill to actually get the ball rolling. And while GLSM seemed like a little thing at the time, the movie's end reveals that that acceptance and goodwill ("Where are my lesbians?" an old lady cries out as the miners arrive at a gay pride parade) can indeed do important, sometimes world-changing things. They're just not always the things you expect.

Make no mistakes -- "Pride" still deals with serious issues, including LGBT youth rejected by their families, AIDS, political strikes, the pressures of a small community, and a violent attack on one of the GLSM members by some random thug in the street. It gives a bittersweet note to the story, especially when we learn that the flirtatious, carefree Jonathan was the second man ever diagnosed with AIDS, and even when his lover Gethin is in the hospital, all Gethin cares about is making sure that Jonathan is taking care of himself.

But ultimately, these problems are not what the movie is about. What it's about is love, and people forming unbreakable bonds regardless of how different they may be. No message here except "love other people, and show them the kindness they deserve as fellow human beings." Do unto others and all that. And what makes it truly heartwarming is that these people were (for the most part) real individuals, and their lives were all changed by what happened. Sometimes it was a whole change in worldview, and sometimes it was just providing a shoulder to cry on or some sage life advice.

And there are some truly lovely moments, such as when the Welsh women stand up and sing "Bread and Roses," and everything falls silent until they have finished. However, it's also raucously, delightfully funny -- lots of dancing, amiable parties, humorous conversations ("Which one of you does the housework?") and the sight of wacky Welsh ladies rooting around in a gay guy's bedroom (turning up sex toys and porn).

All the actors here are doing good jobs, with characters ranging from the awkward, semi-closeted college student by George MacKay (who serves as a sort of audience surrogate) to Imelda Staunton's peppery, clever Hefina and Bill Nighy's stammering, secretive Cliff. Of special note is Schnetzer as Mark Ashton -- he gives this real, sadly-departed activist a charming, passionate, jaunty charisma that sucks in every person to schemes and ideas that seem kind of weird at first. And Andrew Scott gives a smaller, subtler performance as a young man who struggles to reconnect with his religious mother.

Despite being about two major political situations -- which are still very relevant today -- "Pride" is really all about the heart and the connection between people. A savvy, snarky little movie with a heart of gold.

The Odyssey: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Odyssey: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
by Homer
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.50
87 used & new from CDN$ 4.27

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The man of twists and turns, Jan. 24 2015
Poor Odysseus. First he spent a decade fighting in a war he didn't want to go to in the first place. Then he spent ANOTHER decade trying to slog home.

And in one of many spinoffs of "The Iliad," the classical, archetypical trickster-hero spends the entire epic poem "The Odyssey" doing his absolute best to get home, despite the entire universe conspiring to stop him. Like the poem before it, it dances in odd chronological side-steps, with stories within stories, yet the presence of an intelligent and wily hero (just consider how he fools the Cyclops) keeps the story as fresh as ever. And Fagles' translation is a masterful piece of work.

It begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War. Odysseus has been missing ever since the war ended, and everybody assumes he's now dead. His son Telemachus is moping, and his wife Penelope has been fending off her ambitious suitors for several years. The goddess Athena, after interceding on Odysseus' behalf, begins guiding Telemachus to find news of his long-absent father.

Turns out Odysseus is actually alive, and has been the captive of the lovestruck sea-nymph Calypso for seven years. But when he finally gets away, he ends up shipwrecked on a far-off land (due to Poseidon being angry at him), and relates his bizarre story to the people who rescue him.

Among his adventures: his encounter with the Lotus-Eaters and a cruel man-eating Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the sorceress Circe (who turns his men into pigs), the deadly Sirens, Scylla and Charibdis, and the wrath of a god when the crew eats sacred cattle. But even after all this weirdness and twenty years away, Odysseus is still determined to return home and reclaim his family and kingship.

Out of all the stories spun off from "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" is probably the most famous. Perhaps this is because it's one of the least tragic, despite the high death count -- with some divine help from Athena and Hermes, Odysseus can actually get home to Ithaca, his wife and his now-adult son (who is not king, for some reason -- a puzzling detail that I never quite understood).

It's also more colorful and magical than other such stories -- instead of mundane human enemies, Odysseus' story is awash in magical, mythical creatures both fair and foul. There are gods, sorceresses, man-eating monsters and a six-headed creature over a whirlpool. In fact, the story doesn't truly settle back to the "ordinary" life until Odysseus finally gets back home, and has to deal with more human enemies: all the men who want to bonk his wife.

And Odysseus' determination to get home is literally legendary. He's already an endearing character, being a clever trickster-king and a formidable warrior -- but his love for Penelope and his unshakeable, unswerving determination add a depth and intensity to his personality. Telemachos comes across as kind of pouty and sulky at first, but becomes a sort of secondary hero when he learns that his father is not actually dead.

Robert Fagles' translation is a pretty good one -- he maintains the quality of oral poetry ("under her feet she fastened the supple sandals, ever-glowing gold, that wing her over the waves") while being very fluid and easy to read, without getting tangled up in rhyme or line length. There are some phrases that are awkward and anachronistic, but overall the experience is quite lovely.

"The Odyssey" is a timeless, enchanted epic, expanding on one of the most likable characters of the whole Trojan War -- and his magical, terrifying, decade-long adventures are still fascinating literature even today. A masterful must-read.

Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore Bilingual [Blu-ray]
Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore Bilingual [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Hiroshi Hamasaki

3.0 out of 5 stars "I would like.... a vacation.", Jan. 24 2015
For some reason, Marvel Animation has outsourced a number of projects to anime studios, including four different TV series and a series of movies.

One of those movies would be "Iron Man: Rise of Technovore," which is approximately 65% Marvel action and mayhem, and 35% contemplative Nietzsche-quote-dropping anime. Gorgeous animation and some fun supporting by much-loved Marvel characters (Punisher, War Machine, Black Widow and Hawkeye), but it does have a slight problem with the whole Tony Stark Vs. SHIELD subplot that could have been avoided with just a few minutes of discussion.

Tony Stark is preparing to launch a satellite that will allow global surveillance to stop crimes and attacks before they happen... which sounds an awful lot like the villains' plan from "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." But before the satellite launch, a mysterious young boy in bio-tech armor (referred to as Technovore) attacks the facility, and both Tony and Rhodey are attacked by men in flying suits of mech-armor.

But when Rhodey is seemingly killed in the battle, Tony goes on a rampage. Nick Fury tries to contact him, but when Tony ignores this attempt, an all-out assault is launched to stop Tony -- including sending Black Widow and Hawkeye to intercept him. So the eccentric billionaire joins forces with the Punisher to smoke out the mysterious attacker, and figure out what kind of technology he's using. If they fail, SHIELD itself will be the next target.

"Iron Man: Rise of Technovore" is an odd hybrid beast -- some parts of it could have been transplanted directly from a Marvel live-action movie, like the opening scene of Tony and Rhodey zooming over a version of Utah that could only have been dreamed up by someone who has never been there. There's plenty of smashing cars, Mandroids blowing up, people aiming guns and arrows at each other, and occasionally the Helicarrier getting tangled up in long streamers of white biotech goo.

In between those action scenes, it's very clearly a product of Japan. There are long contemplative scenes at times, such as when we see the mysterious Technovore sitting in a glowing white room with a mysterious woman, quoting Nietzsche and conjuring blue butterflies from the air. In fact, the design of Technovore is very clearly anime-styled, more so than anything else in the story -- a long, slender, almost insectile design, with an eyeless mask that evaporates and balls of corrupting white... STUFF that just dart away into nanobots.

The story's biggest problem is that one of the main conflicts -- SHIELD trying to hunt Tony -- comes across as completely over-the-top and avoidable. Yes, Tony is grief-stricken, but literally two minutes of dialogue would have avoided a lot of the story's destruction, and the whole contrived "SHIELD hunting Iron Man" story would have been flushed away. It feels like a distraction from the rather slow-moving central plot, which is too simple and straightforward to stand on its own.

The voice acting is overall quite good -- Matthew Mercer, John Eric Bentley, James C. Mathis III, Kate Higgins, Troy Baker and Clare Grant all give solid performances, mimicking the movie characters pretty nicely. The characters are also rather similar -- while the Tony of this anime doesn't have the charmingly arrogant snark of Robert Downey Jr, he is well-developed as a mischief-maker and grief-wracked friend.

Norman Reedus' Punisher is perhaps the odd duck out. He's not badly-dubbed or out of place, but he feels oddly extraneous to the main story. Eric Bauza's Technovore/Ezekial is probably the weirdest performance -- he's got a distant, gauzy, childish personality that seems less developed than the other characters, and his motives seem kind of disjointed.

"Iron Man: Rise of Technovore" is a fairly entertaining little Marvel story, but it does suffer from slow spots and a rather contrived subplot about SHIELD attacking Iron Man. Worth a watch and beautifully animated, but the script could have used a few more rewrites.

The Great God Pan
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 7.99
10 used & new from CDN$ 3.07

4.0 out of 5 stars One such horror lies at the heart of "The Great God Pan", Jan. 24 2015
This review is from: The Great God Pan (Paperback)
The scariest things are the ones you can't see -- the horrors that lurk just out of sight, only glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.

One such horror lies at the heart of "The Great God Pan," where dabbling in things beyond "the veil" leads to unspeakable horrors, madness, degradation and death. Sort of like getting involved in national politics. Arthur Machen's prose tends to be rather dense and impenetrable, with rambling pseudo-poetic dialogue, but the web of creepy, unspeakable horrors ends up being utterly chilling because of everything you don't see.

The weird Dr. Raymond has a rather bizarre goal, namely to "lift the veil" of illusionary reality and see what exists beyond it: "You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan." He plans to accomplish this via an experimental surgery on the brain of a young woman, but the surgery merely turns the girl insane and catatonic.

Strange things happen in the years that follow. A young girl with a sinister presence who terrifies a boy and leads to the monstrous rape of a young girl. You can probably guess what she is and where she came from, but it takes a little while longer for the characters.

And some time later, a man named Villiers encounters an old friend, Herbert, who is now a filthy, half-crazed homeless man. Herbert relates how he married "a girl of the most wonderful and most strange beauty," and how that woman somehow "corrupted my soul," bringing him face-to-face with horrors he can't even explain. A few days later, Herbert is dead. Villiers consults with Clarke -- who saw the original experiment on the orphan girl -- and the two realize that something inhuman and horrifying walks among them. Something from the great god Pan.

Let's be brutally honest -- Arthur Machen was no Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. His writing style is rather dense and slow-moving, with dialogue that often tangles itself up in its own poesy (" It was as if I were inhaling at every breath some deadly fume, which seemed to penetrate to every nerve and bone and sinew of my body"). The characters tend to launch into page-long monologues, never broken by others characters or anybody reacting to what is said, leaving readers to struggle through giant blocks of text.

So it's a credit to "The Great God Pan" that it still succeeds in being bone-chillingly terrifying, from the misogynstic brain surgery to the final grotesque confrontation with the supernatural ("The blackened face, the hideous form upon the bed, changing and melting before your eyes..."). Machen conjures up the sense that endless, unspeakable horrors lurk just out of the sight of our eyes and minds, and even the seemingly ordinary -- Helen Vaughn -- may have a terrifying monster behind a seemingly ordinary, beautiful face.

What's more, he doesn't give the sensation that this is an isolated incident. Even if the protagonists manage to foil the monster, only a thin veil protects us from whatever is lurking underneath us. There is evil, corruption and madness there, and the depthless horrors of an endless pit -- it's like standing on a piece of frosted glass that BARELY keeps you from seeing a dank, slimy canyon under your feet.

Most of the characters are fairly ordinary people -- middle-aged, white upper-class Englishmen who are ill-suited to deal with the freakier side of the world. Some are utterly despicable (Raymond, who coldly raises an orphan so he can experiment on her brain) while others are fairly likable (Villiers, who stumbles into the freaky stuff entirely by accident). And Helen is a murky, almost ghostly presence, but her malevolent, corrosive personality seems to seep into even secondhand accounts of her.

Arthur Machen's writing could be dense and awkward, but he knew the best way to scare people silly -- "The Great God Pan" is full of terrors and horrors just out of sight, which are only made plain at the story's end. It takes some patience, but the creep factor is off the charts.

Game of Thrones: Season 1 (Limited Edition)
Game of Thrones: Season 1 (Limited Edition)
DVD ~ Peter Dinklage
Price: CDN$ 74.98
4 used & new from CDN$ 64.67

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A throne in turmoil, Jan. 24 2015
The mass media tends to ignore fantasy stories, especially high fantasy stories. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me that George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic A Song Of Ice And Fire was being adapted for television -- and HBO crafts it with all the dignity it deserves, with plenty of grime, blood and a tangle of convoluted storylines.

The castle of Winterfell is thrown on its ear when King Robert (Mark Addy) of Westeros arrives to ask Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean) to be his Hand. But soon after Ned agrees, he receives a message from his mentor's widow, informing him that Queen Cersei's (Lena Headey) family, the Lannisters, are secretly plotting against the king -- and that they are killing off anyone who might be a threat to them.

One of Ned's younger sons is gravely wounded when he sees something shocking, and the acid-tongued dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is framed for the crime. Ned's bastard son Jon (Kit Harington) joins the Watch near the Wall -- but has little idea of the horrors that are approaching with the White Walkers.

And across the Narrow Sea, exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen is wed to the barbarian lord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), so that her brother can invade Westeros and take back the throne. But Daenerys quickly grows in strength and wisdom, and the Small Council of Westeros has reason to fear her when it's found that she's pregnant -- but her greatest power is that of the dragon's daughter.

As Ned takes to his new duties, he begins investigating the death of his predecessor, and begins to uncover a shocking secret about the queen and her children. Treachery, death and war will be brought to Westeros, and a war will begin with the blood of the good-hearted.

"A Game of Thrones" is truly an epic story -- it took a whole ten episodes to encapsulate a single book, and the story is far from over. There are countless plot threads woven into one enormous, bloodsoaked tapestry, linked together even if they are technically separate. And since this is only based on the first of Martin's books, it ends on a note both depressing and uplifting. Lots of plot threads are left dangling, but in such a way that you end up wanting to know what happens next.

The entire series is draped in cold stone walls, grimy medieval atmosphere, windswept steppes, splatters of dark blood and the occasional sunny day. They don't skimp on explicit violence (including the death of a beloved character) or sex, but the focus here is always on the clashing families, battles and seedy plots of the queen. And despite that focus, there is still a hint of the magical in this fantasy -- talk of dragons, the White Walkers and their undead wights.

As for the cast, it is BRILLIANT -- Sean Bean is perfection as the world-weary, good-hearted Eddard, and he's got a brilliant backing cast in Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, the amazing Peter Dinklage, Jason Momoa, Michelle Fairley, and countless others. Even the child actors like Maisie Williams and Jack Gleeson are absolute perfection.

And best of all, their characters are all so REAL. They have good points and bad points, strengths and failings, and they often change drastically over the course of the season (Daenerys turns from a pallid little wallflower to a powerful and icy queen).

"A Game of Thrones" is a truly spellbinding experience, if not one that you want to see all together. Bloody, complicated and full of richly-developed characters, this is a future classic.

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