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Sleepy Hollow: The Complete First Season
Sleepy Hollow: The Complete First Season
DVD ~ Tom Mison
Price: CDN$ 21.99
2 used & new from CDN$ 21.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Heads off to you!, Jan. 11 2015
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Ichabod Crane and his encounter with the Headless Horseman... and apparently forgot to mention the witches, George Washington, the demon Moloch, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Yes, there's not much about "Sleepy Hollow Season 1" that resembles the original story, except a handful of names and the idea of a supernatural horseman with no head. But it does have the Horseman firing machine guns, so that's something -- a grim yet imaginative supernatural thriller, where a small New York city becomes the stage for a battle between the forces of evil... and a cop/guy-out-of-time duo.

In 1781, Revolutionary spy/soldier Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is mortally wounded when fighting the supernatural Headless Horseman, and his witch wife Katrina (Katia Winters) bespells him into a magical sleep. Over two hundred years later, he emerges from the grave, since his life is now bound to the unlife of the Horseman. A local cop, Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is understandably skeptical of the man claiming to have served under George Washington and raving about the Headless Horseman killing her mentor.

But she soon discovers that the Headless Horseman is very real -- and he's actually one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, serving the demon Moloch. Hang on, there's a lot of supernatural backstory in this story, mostly related to stopping the end of the world.

As two "witnesses" foretold in the Bible, Abbie and Ichabod find themselves bound together, and dealing with some weird, weird stuff -- a cult of evil witches, some evil Hessians, the lost colony of Roanoke, an angry dream spirit, a haunted house, a demonic possession, a golem, and the ongoing quest to keep a doorway to Hell from being opened. The key to it all may lie in Abbie's past, and Ichabod's very messed-up family.

"Sleepy Hollow Season 1" has a rather ridiculous premise, and sometimes it isn't afraid to just run with the absurdity (usually by Abbie sarcastically questioning something). But most of the time, it takes itself pretty seriously, spinning up a complex mythology that has a large number of plot twists, such as pretty much everything about Ichabod and Katrina's son. Seriously, nothing about him is untwisted. There's something fascinating and oddly admirable about a show so wholeheartedly embracing its weird side.

And don't worry: there isn't constant comedy about Ichabod being a fish out of water. Yes, there are some gags based on Ichabod being from the late 1700s (he refuses to get rid of his ratty coat for fear someone will "wear it ironically" and rages about sales tax and skinny jeans), but it's not too annoying. Instead, the story relies on lots of decapitations, "Evil Dead" tree roots, gloomy brick catacombs and misty forests where demons rise between bone-white trees.

The core of the show is the relationship between Abbie and Ichabod -- she a no-nonsense cop who initially doesn't buy into all this supernatural hooey, and he an occult expert who hobnobbed with the Founding Fathers. Beharie seems rather stiff in the first few episodes, until it gradually becomes clear that she's playing a very repressed, walled-up woman. And the sublimely beautiful Mison is excellent as a VERY open-minded Englishman who defected to the American side, and now finds himself afloat in an alien world.

There's also some solid side performances by Orlando Jones as Abbie's long-suffering boss, who reluctantly finds himself enmeshed in the world of the supernatural; John Noble as a reclusive "sin-eater"; Lyndie Greenwood as Abbie's scrappy sister; and John Cho as a weak-willed witch who serves Moloch.

The weak point? Katrina. She's effectively a passive, paper-thin damsel who just sits around looking sad and saying Important Things in a wispy yet melodramatic voice. And quite honestly, Winter's chemistry with Mison is so nonexistent that it almost forms a black hole.

Despite that one major flaw, "Sleepy Hollow Season 1" is a solid, serious supernatural thriller, with plenty of violence and weird demonic goings-on. Just grit your teeth through Katrina's presence.

Tales From Earthsea [Blu-ray + DVD] (Bilingual)
Tales From Earthsea [Blu-ray + DVD] (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Timothy Dalton
Price: CDN$ 29.96
20 used & new from CDN$ 26.38

3.0 out of 5 stars A darkness in the heart, Jan. 11 2015
"Tales from Earthsea" is a Miyazaki movie. Just not THE Miyazaki.

No, this extremely loose adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series is directed by Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro Miyazaki. And it has the earmarks of a promising first effort -- the visuals are hauntingly lovely, the dialogue is sometimes beautiful, and there's raw passion in its making. But honestly, the story is often confusing, and fans of Le Guin's books will probably implode with rage over the story changes.

The archmage Sparrowhawk encounters a young boy named Prince Arren in the desert, and takes him under his wing. Arren is on the run from his own kingdom after committing a horrible crime, and Sparrowhawk is out to find out why magic seems to be draining out of the world, and darkness is creeping into people's hearts.

After some misadventures with slavers, they make their way to Sparrowhawk's friend/love interest Tenar, and her adopted daughter Therru. Unfortunately, the malevolent mage Cob has learned of Sparrowhawk's presence nearby, and plans to use Arren in his quest for eternal life and revenge againt Sparrowhawk... unless Therru can help her friend come to terms with his inner darkness.

Like most movies from Studio Ghibli, "Tales From Earthsea" is visually stunning almost beyond belief -- ivy-draped cities, azure seaports, dark looming castles against twilight skies, and long sweeping green fields dotted with trees in the morning sun. There's a genuine sense of magic and mystery to this world, and you can really feel the passion that Miyazaki had for his story and the way it's depicted.

However, the story itself is kind of mixed. The dialogue is strong and often hauntingly powerful ("But only to men is it given to know that we must die, and that is a precious gift"), and the story has some scenes that linger in the mind afterwards. But the narrative is often confusing -- the murky cosmology, undeveloped backstory (what are the tombs of Atuan?), and the whole subplot about Arren is just befuddling. His initial actions -- before we even get to know him -- are baffling.

Most of the story's character development centers on Arren. He seems like a nice polite young boy, but from his very first shocking scene we see that darkness and despair are slowly consuming him. Miyazaki crafts a solid father/son relationship between Arren and Sparrowhawk, and the archmage is also a powerful character -- understanding, forgiving, and universally kind.

Miyazaki also spins up a solid bond between Sparrowhawk and his old friend Tenar, who have the comfortable feel of an old married couple who know each other so well that they can practically finish each other's sentences. Therru is flawed, though -- she's not really fleshed out much, and she does something near the movie's end that left me scratching my head. It wasn't really foreshadowed or hinted at -- it just happens.

As for the villain Cob... uh, he seems like just a pallid effeminate villain at first, but he gets progressively creepier as we see more of him. Example: the scene where he slips Arren a roofie to get his true name. That was... disturbing.

Goro Miyazaki isn't the master that his father is, but there is still plenty of power, beauty and promise in his movie debut, "Tales From Earthsea." Beautifully rendered, but flawed.

Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems
Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems
Price: CDN$ 0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars I was mortal but am fiend, Jan. 11 2015
I've always had a liking for Edgar Allan Poe, with his tales of horror, mystery and suspense, done in the atmospheric prose of a master writer. Since I live close enough, I've even made some trips to his gravesite, a place that is always surrounded by a sense of sadness.

Poe was a tormented genius who died young, under mysterious circumstances, and at the time of his death he wasn't deservingly popular. Certainly his work was not cute romances for the masses -- he explored the darkness of the human heart, love, satire, and the earliest whodunnit stories. And "Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe" brings together all of his poetry and writings in one book.

Poe's fiction writings include short stories and novellas, which tend to be rather weird -- a treasure-hunt and a golden insect, a ship caught in a whirlpool, a hypnotized man talks about the universe, and stories of despair, madness, and occasionally beauty. There is also his trilogy of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin stories, which were the first to feature a brilliant detective solving an impossible crime.

Most people know about "The Raven" (which even has the Baltimore Ravens named after it) but Poe actually wrote a lot of poetry, most of which readers never heard of. Sometimes dark, or whimsical, or even both. "By a route obscure and lonely/Haunted by ill angels only/Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT/On a black throne reigns upright..."

And, of course, the horror. This is what Poe is best known for, including such well-known stories as "The Fall Of The House Of Usher." But there are also lesser-known gems -- tales of a plague invading a party, being buried alive, a portrait that siphoned the life out of its subject, and a nightly visit to an Italian crypt leading to madness.

Don't read "Complete Stories and Poems" all at once. It's too intense. It's better to soak it in a little at a time, so that you can get a better feel for the different kinds of writing that Poe did, and how he excelled at pretty much everything he put down on paper. Most great writers can't boast of that much.

Poe's writing is what makes even his least story or poem come alive -- he brought a gothic, misty vibrancy to his stories, and could make his quiet dialogue seem utterly chilling (" "I have no name in the regions which I inhabit. I was mortal, but am fiend..."). It's not hard to see why he was an influence on authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Franz Kafka.

"Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe" is a must-have for anyone with an appreciation for great literature and beautiful, dark writing.

Under the Skin [Blu-ray] [Import]
Under the Skin [Blu-ray] [Import]
Offered by Fulfillment Express CA
Price: CDN$ 27.71
28 used & new from CDN$ 17.63

4.0 out of 5 stars Under her skin, Jan. 11 2015
It sounds like the premise of a porn movie -- an alien visitor who looks like a beautiful woman wanders through cities, picking up men.

Instead, that is the central concept of "Under The Skin," a hauntingly poignant sci-fi movie that is... well, not really like anything else you've ever seen. It's strange, abstract and devoid of a typical plot, relying mostly on the subtle cues of Scarlett Johansson's acting. But the way it's filmed is somewhat disconcerting, as it veers from Kubrickian surrealism to a gritty, awkward "realism" that feels improvised.

While dwelling in a blank negative space, a mysterious young woman (Johansson) steals the clothes of a dead girl found by the side of the road. Then she wanders through a Scottish city in her van, observing and experimenting -- she wanders through a mall, tries on lipstick, buys a fur coat, and so on. And of course, she picks up a number of semi-attractive young men.

Not so unusual, right? Well, she brings them into ANOTHER blank space, this one filled with an inky black liquid. She lures them into the liquid with her body, and leaves them to be sucked dry by it. Literally. In one horrifyingly creepy scene, a man sees a previous victim dissolving into nothing but a floating mass of empty skin, drifting down into the darkness.

Among her victims are a friendly electrician who accepts a ride, a man camping on the beach, a guy at a club, and a shy man who suffers from a facial deformity. But this peculiar routine begins to change as the woman begins to yearn for human connections; one of the men even leaves when her eerie stillness unnerves him. And behind her at all times is a mysterious motorcyclist who follows her.

"Under the Skin" is not a movie that answers questions. What was the woman's purpose in being here? What does the black liquid do? Is there a practical reason for her to kill all these men, or is it part of the process of trying to absorb the human condition that she clumsily imitates?

Nope. Not answered. It's a movie that gives you several jigsaw pieces so you can fill in the gaps with your own imagination. Director Jonathan Glazer prefers to let this story drift on its own, at times almost like a silent film -- while there is sound, he prefers to let visuals tell the important parts of the story. For instance, the woman's increased attentiveness to humanity is represented by countless golden-hued images of people she sees, growing more complicated and abstract until it becomes a fluttering, scintillating map around her lovely blank face.

So what is this movie's flaw? As far as cinematography goes, it actually feels like two movies. The cinematography of the "everyday" world of Scotland shows it off in its grey-skied, slightly wild beauty, both in nature and in the grubby cities. In these scenes, it feels almost like cinéma vérité. The dialogue is awkward and stammering, dwelling on unimportant topics, with long pauses -- almost like real speech. Then we switch to the silent, hauntingly surreal science-fiction of the black sea and its seething channels of blood, filmed crisply and without the sting of "realism."

It's very disorienting, and the only thing that seems to unite these two "worlds" is the soundtrack by Micachu, which enhances the eerie otherworldliness of the story. It's twisting, trembling, stark music with a drum like a heartbeat. Whenever her music is playing, you can't forget that weird things are happening.

Scarlett Johansson's performance is absolutely phenomenal here, playing a lonely, cold creature that seeks the warmth of human experience, but cannot truly grasp it.. While technically acting "normal," she infuses most of what her character says with a subtle weirdness -- an artificiality that belies the chilly inhumanity underneath. Her character cannot grasp what humans are all about, yet we see her struggling to do so -- trying to connect to people in a clueless, awkward way, trying to eat cake, trying to have sex, and so on. Johansson conveys both her vulnerability and her cold alienness through subtle expressions and eye movements.

"Under the Skin" is definitely not an average sci-fi movie -- it's an odd, weird, surrealistic piece that drifts between two cinematic styles. Definitely not for everyone, but also definitely worth a watch.

Jodorowskys Dune [Blu-ray + DVD] (Sous-titres français)
Jodorowskys Dune [Blu-ray + DVD] (Sous-titres français)
DVD ~ Nicolas Refn
Price: CDN$ 29.99
28 used & new from CDN$ 29.99

5.0 out of 5 stars With a devil in our pocket, Jan. 11 2015
For most of cinematic history, movies have been products rather than art. Oh, many of the greatest movies have been works of art as well, but they are usually underscored by the studios and their need to market it to as many people as possible.

So there's something almost hypnotically fascinating about "Jodorowsky's Dune," a documentary about the greatest movie never made -- a nonexistent epic art film based on Frank Herbert's novel, by the director of "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." It's almost mesmerizing how much talent and wild creative energy was gathered into a single focus... and it ultimately leaves you sad that his version of "Dune" was never seen outside of the creators' heads.

In the 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky optioned the novel "Dune" for his next movie, even though he hadn't actually read it yet. But before long, he had a sprawling, exquisitely-detailed space opera in his head, and began assembling a team of "spiritual warriors" to help him bring it to life -- artists HR Giger and Chris Foss, special effects artist Dan O'Bannon (later of "Alien"), rock bands Magma and Pink Floyd, and a nearly-all-star cast including Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and so on.

And all the pieces seemed to be falling into place -- every person who he approached became enmeshed in his wild creative vision, including the notoriously difficult Welles (whom he had to bribe with food). Concept art from the time reveals a vibrantly weird plan, including a Harkonnen palace shaped like the Baron, camouflaged birdlike spacecraft, and the single most epic establishing shot in cinematic history.

There is nothing of this vision except for the concept art, but what little we see (some of which is turned into simple animated shorts) and hear from those involved is mesmerizing. And while technically an adaptation of "Dune," it soon becomes clear that this is not Herbert's vision or philosophy, but Jodorowsky's ("I was raping Frank Herbert...") and he was creating a spectacle with the novel merely as the springboard.

But the massive wellspring of creativity hit a brick wall when Jodorowsky was confronted by the studio, mainly over budgetary concerns, a massive running time, and the resistance to letting Jodorowsky realize his vision. And of course, it demanded special effects that would honestly be difficult to achieve even today.

Tragically, it was cancelled by the studio just before the set construction was intended to begin, and the film was ultimately given to David Lynch. And with the massive amount of creative talent involved, it actually became influential to hit movies as well -- from little things like the robot POV or the costumes, to the action of "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and the sprawling sets and spectacles of movies like "Prometheus," "Alien," "Flash Gordon," "Contact." And from these other projects came many of the classics of science fiction today.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a fascinating figure even today -- the documentary spends the majority of its time lingering on the dynamic, passionate old man, expounding with excitement over the vision that never came to fruition. He's a singularity of shining creative energy, and despite his efforts to overcome it ("Dune is cancelled! Yes! So what?") he clearly still feels pain and disappointment over what happened. Even as he tries to sound happy about the success of his "spiritual warriors," there is clearly a sadness in him.

Consider the amount of money squandered on movies like "John Carter" and "The Lone Ranger," both coldly commercial and financially disastrous. It makes you wish that someone would lavish money on him today to bring his epic story to life.

But it's somehow inspiring to see so many creative people working in harmony, and creating something so purely artistic and epic that it cannot be quenched simply by studio squeamishness. Instead, the creativity and visual splendor was spread across an entire film genre, seeding the world of science fiction movies (and Jodorowsky's underrated comics) with a sublime, haunting beauty, horror and majesty that it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Ultimately, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is inspiring not because of what was accomplished despite the odds, but because Jodorowsky urges people, "If you fail, is not important. Try!" And the documentary of the "Dune" that never was is a bittersweet, mesmerizing experience because of that.

Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising
Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising
Price: CDN$ 11.54
30 used & new from CDN$ 4.06

4.0 out of 5 stars Transform and roll out, Jan. 11 2015
What comes to mind when you think of "Transformers" in the last decade? Pain, disappointment, misery, loathing, nausea, Sam Witwicky, giant Decepticon testicles...

But one good thing has come from the cesspool of frat-boy wretchedness that Michael Bay has produced: "Transformers Prime," a series that takes the appearance of the big-budget movies... but actually has dignity, an overarcing plot, and focuses more on the giant robots. "Transformers: Prime - Darkness Rising" is the five-episode miniseries that began the long-running animated series, and despite some flaws (Miko) it's a solid springboard to the story.

There are two groups of shapeshifting alien robots on Earth -- the Autobots and the Decepticons. Guess which ones are the villains. While the Decepticons dwell on a starship in space, the Autobots live in an old military bunker in the wilds of Nevada.

When an Autobot is captured and executed by the Decepticons, three teenagers accidentally get caught in the crossfire -- tiny nerd Raf, responsible Jack, and clueless Miko. Since the Autobots are supposed to be a secret (except to their government liarson, Bill Fowler), this is a bit upsetting to them. But the Autobot leader Optimus Prime believes that now the Decepticons will target the kids, so he decides to keep them in their base.

Then the Decepticon leader Megatron returns to Earth -- and he's brought Dark Energon, a substance that can revive living machines as ravening zombies. Even regular machines can be transformed into dangerous creatures by it. Optimus Prime soon realizes what Megatron is planning -- to raise an army of undead Transformers on their dead home planet of Cybertron, and then transport them to Earth.

"Transformers Prime - Darkness Rising" is a pretty solid start to a series -- well-written, fast-paced, and doing a good job of introducing the characters. And while the Bay movies are used as an artistic template (Bumblebee's lack of speech, the character designs), it shares no actual connections to the story. Instead, we're served up mechanical zombies, space-gates and the promise of a larger story to come.

And with only a few episodes, "Darkness Rising" manages to convey a real sense of history and epic conflict. A lot of this comes from the brief sojourn on Cybertron, a dead husk of a planet overrun with insectile vermin and the corpses of the Autobot fallen. Furthermore, the inclusion of starships and space-bridges get across just how far the Autobot/Decepticon war has ranged. While there are some moments of humor, it's overall a pretty serious story, with some moments of harrowing violence (the murder of Cliffjumper, and his resurrection as a crazed zombie).

The biggest problem is probably the kids. Human characters are the weakness of every Transformers story, and these are no exception -- Raf and Jack are bland but likable enough, but Miko is a "quirky" teen girl as written by a team of men who have probably never even met one. She is violently annoying, and serves no purpose in the story except to stupidly cause complications in already-disastrous situations.

However, the other characters are pretty decent. Optimus can be rather pompous, providing contemplative speeches at every possible opportunity, but is pretty admirable. Then there is a warm-hearted Bumblebee, the prickly Arcee, rough but kindly Bulkhead, and the perpetually irritable Ratchet (played by the always-excellent Jeffrey Combs), who thinks the humans REALLY shouldn't be hanging around the Autobots.

"Transformers Prime - Darkness Rising" is a solid start to a solid series -- while it has some flaws (MIKO!) it's an intriguing and well-developed miniseries. And it only gets better from here.

Hannibal: Season 2
Hannibal: Season 2
DVD ~ Hugh Dancy
Price: CDN$ 19.49
10 used & new from CDN$ 18.99

4.0 out of 5 stars I never feel guilty eating anything, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Hannibal: Season 2 (DVD)
Will Graham has figured out who the Chesapeake Ripper is, the murderer who manipulates everyone around him like fleshy marionettes.

But having been effectively framed for the murders, he begins a descent into darkness in the elegantly horrific second season of "Hannibal," which slowly shifts from a single calculating killer manipulating people to an elaborate game of deception and hate. Even more impressive, Bryan Fuller successfully manipulates the viewer, leaving everyone guessing about who is doing what, who is lying, and who has embraced the darkness.

As the story begins, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) appears in the home of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson), and physically attacks him. A few months earlier, in a facility for the criminally insane, Will (Hugh Dancy) keeps maintaining that he is innocent, and that the real killer is Hannibal. But the FBI is determined to destroy him in order to distance themselves from these crimes, and the few people who believe him are forced to question whether he's insane or not.

While Crawford struggles with his past choices, he also has to deal with a new string of bizarre, grotesque serial killings with the help of Hannibal -- including the judge and bailiff in Will's case. When a member of his team is brutally murdered, he realizes that the Chesapeake Ripper is still at large. Even more shocking, someone thought dead is still alive.

But even when Will's innocence is established, all the evidence still points away from Hannibal and towards Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza). Still knowing Hannibal to be a cannibalistic killer, Will decides to continue his therapy with the doctor... but seems to be slowly descending into a serial-killer existence of his own. Has he given in to his own inner darkness, or is something more at work?

Producer Bryan Fuller has a talent for two things: whimsy and the macabre. Both can still be found in abundance in "Hannibal Season 2" -- there are lots of grotesque killings in very, very creative ways (bees, flowers, inside a horse's uterus), mixed in with Will's symbolic, hallucinatory visions, which give a supernatural bent to the story. The night-black deer-man is as eerie as ever, but Will's own burgeoning inner darkness is expressed through growing vast, branching antlers from his back.

This season is a more intricate affair than the first -- where that season was a puppet show, this one is an elaborate waltz between two equally intelligent individuals. Furthermore, the rest of the cast slides around in what they think of Will and Hannibal, forming shifting alliances and ever-changing opinions. And despite all the corpses, bloody organs and some truly horrendous cannibalism, it's handled with an elegant, ebony-shadowed delicacy that keeps it from being torture-porny.

And while the first half is harrowing, with Will all but convicted of murder (especially since the FBI want him gone), the second half is like a Dante's "Inferno" of the soul. Will immerses himself in the pitch-black pool of Hannibal's secret world, and it seems like he won't make it out without becoming the very thing he hunts.

Dancy and Mikkelson are excellent here. Dancy's wispy frame and intense eyes give Will an almost otherworldly presence, even if you don't pay attention to his weird antler visions. And Mikkelson comes across as, in the words of Hammett, "rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan" -- he's all charm and elegance, sensuality and icy haughtiness. Only occasionally do we see him thrown off-balance, and only for brief moments.

Fishburne balances both of them out as a warm, essentially normal presence, but with his own undercurrent of tragedy as he struggles with his wife's mortality and his feelings of guilt. Caroline Dhavernas is a more peripheral presence, willingly placing herself in Hannibal's web of deception. And there are some solid supporting performances by Gillian Anderson, Esparza, Katharine Isabelle and Lara Jean Chorostecki.

"Hannibal Season 2" is a more elaborate, darker affair than the first season -- and it leaves you acutely aware that nothing will ever be the same again. All shadows, blood and fear.

A Court of Thorns and Roses eSampler
A Court of Thorns and Roses eSampler
Price: CDN$ 0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Silver bells and iron, Jan. 11 2015
Imagine if France and most of England were dominated by different courts of Faerie, while Germany and the southernmost part of England were ruled by mortals.

This is the setting of "A Court Of Thorns and Roses," Sarah J. Maas' fourth fantasy novel. The "A Court of Thorns and Roses eSampler" allows readers to check out the first four chapters of this story (plus map), which is just enough to get you excited about the story -- influenced by the medieval legends of Tamlin and (possibly a little) the works of Garth Nix.

When a massive silver wolf stalks the deer that Feyre is hunting, she ends up shooting it through the eye and skinning it. Her family has lost their estate and is on the verge of starvation, and Feyre is the only one who can hunt for them. Her life is a hard, bitter one, with nothing to look forward to except the occasional tryst with a local friend-with-benefit, and the bitterness of her sister.

But the killing of the wolf attracts trouble from Prythian -- a monstrous Faerie creature who demands to know who the "murderer" is. And under the Treaty between the Faerie, he is owed a life for a life.

The four-chapter preview of "A Court of Thorns and Roses" is a good teaser for the book to come -- it gives a fairly complete portrait of the world in which Feyre lives (complete with Faerie worshippers, fantasy creatures and the Treaty), and introduces some characters (the mercenary, the young Blessed fanatic) who will probably be significant in the overall story. But of course, it ends on an epic cliffhanger.

And Maas writes in a solidly older-teen style, with lots of detail and slow reveals of how Feyre's life and world works. Her writing is strong, detailed but full of pretty little details (the silver bells, snowflakes and painted flowers) to lighten up the rather grim medieval village. The only problem is that she doesn't really explore how well-off the "well-off" people of their village are, which would have given us a better idea of how the village works overall.

The interestingly-named Feyre is also a fairly likeable heroine -- she's strong and athletic, more attuned to the life that her family now leads. She has some bitter edges, but is kind enough to not dislike her family for the things they can't/won't do, like chop wood or hunt. And Maas bravely avoids a common trope in young-adult fiction, namely having teen girls be virtually sexless before they meet their One True Love.

"A Court of Thorns and Roses eSampler" is a good introduction to Maas' fourth book -- you get to know the heroine, the setting, the backstory, and the strong writing. On to the real thing!

The Silmarillion
The Silmarillion
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Paperback
2 used & new from CDN$ 10.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The Bible of Middle-Earth, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: The Silmarillion (Paperback)
Consider this -- J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastical epic "Lord of the Rings" is only the tail end of his invented history.

Yes, Tolkien spent most of his adult life crafting the elaborate, rich world of Middle-Earth, and coming up with a fictional history that spanned millennia. And "The Silmarillion" was the culmination of that work -- a Biblesque epic of fantasy history, stretching from the creation of the universe to the final bittersweet departure of the Elves from Middle-Earth.

A complete summary is impossible, because the book spans millennia and has one earth-shattering event after another. But it includes:
*The creation of Tolkien's invented pantheons of angelic beings under Eru Iluvatar, also known as God.
*How they sang the world into being, and the creation of Elves, Men, and Dwarves (hobbits are not really covered).
*The legendary love story of Beren and Luthien, a mortal Man and an Elf maiden who gives up her immortality for the man she loves.
*The attempts of the demonic Morgoth and his servant Sauron (remember him?) to corrupt the world.
*Feanor and his sons, and the terrible oath that led to Elves slaying one another.
*The Silmarils, the glorious gems made from the the essence of the Two Trees that generated the world's light.
*Elves of just about any kind -- bad, mad, dangerous, good, sweet, brave, and so forth.
*The creation of the many Rings of Power -- and the One Ring of Sauron.
*And finally, the quest of the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, and the final battle that would decide the fate of Middle-Earth.

If you ever were confused by a reference or name mentioned in "The Hobbit" or "Lord of the Rings," then chances are that "The Silmarillion" can enlighten you about what it meant. What is Numenor? Who are the Valar? Who is that Elbereth Gilthoniel that people keep praying to? How did the Elf/Dwarf feud originally begin? And how exactly is Elrond related to Aragorn?

For the most part, it focuses on the Elves and their history, especially where it intertwines with the history of Men -- although Dwarves and Hobbits don't get nearly as much ink devoted to them. But in that story, Tolkien weaves together stories of earth-shattering romance, haunting tragedy, gory violence, good versus evil, the rise and fall of cities and kingdoms, and much more.

However, it's not really written like Tolkien's other works. It's more like the Bible, the Mabinogion or the Eddas. Tolkien didn't get as "into" the heads of his characters here, and wrote a more detailed, sprawling narrative that would have needed countless books to explore in depth. But while his prose is more formal and distant here, it still has that haunting starlit beauty ("Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight").

It's clear to see, while reading this, the extent of Tolkien's passion for his invented history. Someone who had a lack of enthusiasm could not have spent much of his adult life writing, revising, and polishing a history that never was. It's also almost frighteningly imaginative and real: It isn't too hard to imagine that these things could actually have happened. In a genre clogged with shallow sword'n'sorcery, Tolkien's coherent, carefully-written backstory is truly unique.

Casual Tolkien fans probably won't be able to stick it out. But those who appreciate the richness and scope of Middle-Earth should examine "The Silmarillion," a sprawling fictional history full of beauty, tragedy and love. A work of literary genius.

Coraline [Blu-ray]
Coraline [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Dakota Fanning
Price: CDN$ 14.99
7 used & new from CDN$ 11.45

4.0 out of 5 stars You are not my mother!, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Coraline [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Nobody can drench a book in creepy, dank atmosphere like Neil Gaiman, infused with humor and more than a little horror. Fortunately that flavour is kept alive in the movie adaptation of "Coraline," brought to life by the talented Henry Selick. It's a haunting little dark fairy tale full of decayed apartments, dancing rats and eerie soulless doppelgangers, as well as a gutsy heroine who finds herself in this ominous "other" world.

Newly moved into an aged apartment, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is bored. Her parents are too busy to do anything with her, and her neighbors are either insane or boring. The one exception is Wybie, a boy who annoys her no end.

It's the sort of relentlessly dull world that any little girl would want to escape from -- until Coraline does. She encounters a plastered-up door and a colourful wormhole, leading to an almost exact copy of her new home. In fact, it's so similar that she has a button-eyed "other mother" (Teri Hatcher) and matching "other father," (John Hodgman) as well as great food, games, a shimmering magic garden, a chorus of circus rodents and magic toys.

At first Coraline is fascinated by the other world, especially since her other parents are as attentive as her real ones aren't. Then she finds her real parents sealed inside a mirror. With the help of a sarcastic cat, Coraline ventures back into the other world. But with her parents and a trio of dead children held hostage, Coraline's only hope is to gamble with her own freedom -- and she'll be trapped forever if she fails.

"Coraline" is a brilliant dark fairy-tale vibe -- decayed apartments, dead children, spiderwebs, beetles, disembodied hands, button eyes, and an insectile button-eyed woman who wants to claim Coraline for herself. It's a fairy tale world that turns into a nightmare realm where souls are lost and horrific things scuttle in the shadows.

Most directors would turn the story into a cutesy, unscary affair... but not the director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach." Instead, Selick gives it a dark, cobwebby atmosphere, brilliant colours and surreal details (the button eclipsing the moon). And it's full of lovely details that could have been silly (the creepy-crawly claw hand) yet work brilliantly.

The story starts off as merely surreal, but grows more ghastly and eerie as the movie unwinds -- and in the last third, the slow-moving story suddenly spins into a thoroughly spooky territory, and a truly terrifying climax where the Other Mother shows her true self. And along the way, there are plenty of wonderfully creepy moments -- the three ghosts in a rotting bedroom/mirror, the offering of buttons and thick black thread, weird circus acts, and much more. The horror is subtle, the delicious creepiness is not.

Coraline -- the Alice in this Notsowonderland -- is a wonderful little heroine: strong, sensible, self-sufficient but still fairly freaked out about what is happening around her. Normally I'm not crazy about Dakota Fanning, but she's quite good in this role, giving a sort of acerbic wit to our tough little heroine.

The sarcastic cat is a wonderful counterpoint, and the movie's original character Wybie makes a nice companion (albeit an extraneous one). And the other mother is the stuff of nightmares -- she's utterly inhuman and merciless, and by the movie's climax she's become the stuff of nightmares. Oh, and French and Saunders make a pair of fun cameos as the kooky neighbors.

"Coraline" is a brilliantly dark little movie, full of dark magic and eerie creatures -- definitely for fans of Gaiman, dark fantasy and stop-motion animation. A delight all around.

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