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E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA)

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The Black Hole (Bilingual)
The Black Hole (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Maximilian Schell
Price: CDN$ 8.88
29 used & new from CDN$ 8.88

3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing can escape it -- not even light, Feb. 17 2015
This review is from: The Black Hole (Bilingual) (DVD)
"The Black Hole" came out in a period when science fiction was making a big comeback. "Star Wars: A New Hope" had come out a year or two before, "2001: A Space Odyssey" was already a classic, and the same year brought us "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and the classic "Alien."

And in some ways, "The Black Hole" fits in seamlessly with those other movies -- the sets and matte visuals are absolutely stunning, giving the movie a real sense of epic emptiness, and director Gary Nelson clearly was attempting to create a sense of depth that most live-action Disney movies lack ("Like looking into Dante's Inferno!"). But it also has a hefty dose of cheez, with wise-cracking psychic robots and bloodless disembowelings.

While returning to Earth, the USS Palomino spots a massive black hole with a starship orbiting it. It turns out to the the USS Cygnus, presumed lost twenty years ago -- and of particular interest because Dr. McCrae's (Yvette Mimieux) father was on board, and the legendary Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) was leading the expedition. Fortunately the Cygnus is in some kind of gravity-nullifying field, so they manage to dock and get on board the massive ship.

Dr. Reinhardt turns out to be very much alive, but reports that the crew is all dead. Yup, all dead... and DEFINITELY not those robots who look just like masked, robed humans. Their resident robot V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (Roddy McDowall) soon discovers that the more typical robots aren't very nice either, but that's probably the least interesting part of the movie.

While wining and dining them, Reinhardt reveals that his plan is to somehow pilot the Cygnus THROUGH the black hole, to parts unknown. Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins) is dazzled by this and totally wants to join in, but Captain Holland (Robert Forster) and Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) are not so sure. As they try to repair their ship, they begin to realize the true sinister fate of the Cygnus's crew -- and that Reinhardt may not let them leave alive.

"The Black Hole" is a movie that should be praised for its ambition, if nothing else. This is a valiant attempt to create serious, mood-driven science fiction in the "2001: A Space Odyssey" mold, but not so slow-moving or cerebral that it would alienate children who might be watching. And most of the time, it actually succeeds in this -- the movie glides along slowly, building up a sense of ominous suspense, while also dealing with some pretty horrific topics (and even killing off one of the crew in a pretty gruesome manner).

Nelson achieves a lot of this through the epic emptiness of the Cygnus, a ship whose interiors and exteriors seem to stretch forever, lit but lifeless. The sets have a cathedral-like grandeur, only augmented by the silent starfields that often look into the enormous windows. And almost every room is shrouded in deep shadows, giving the feeling that things are being hidden from sight. The climax is perhaps the most magnificent part, sinking the ship into a hellish red inferno as it crumbles away around the main characters, and bursting into a string of symbolic images in Kubrickian fashion.

So what is wrong with "The Black Hole"? Well, just as a ship can't escape a black hole's gravity... "The Black Hole" can't escape Disney. There's a heavy dose of cheesiness that bogs down the haunting main plot, mostly coming from the nonsensical psychic powers (which robots have... WHY?!) and the cutesy-looking, merchandise-ready comic-relief robots. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. looks like a levitating child's toy, with a personality like that of an abnormally smug C3-PO sans any of the comedy, and he hangs out with a battered model who... speaks with a Texan accent. Not kidding.

And Nelson's direction also provides some... slightly odd performances. For some reason, every character speaks in an oddly affected manner for most of the movie, which is especially noticeable whenever a crisis arises. For instance, when Vincent is nearly sent flying into the black hole, Charlie says, "What the hell are you made of? What if it were one of us out there?" without a speck of organic passion, and gets the equally flat response, "Vincent is one of us."

This is particularly noticeable with Joseph Bottoms and Yvette Mimieux, who are easily the worst actors here, while Robert Forster is just forgettable. Seriously, just try to remember him when the movie is over. Fortunately, the more talented actors manage to wring some real acting from their roles -- Perkins is pretty good as a starry-eyed fanboy for Reinhardt, Borgnine has amiable avuncularity aplenty, and Schell plays his mad scientist role with genuine charm and subtlety.

"The Black Hole" is ALMOST a great movie, with its valiant attempts to be more than just another cheesy space opera... and without the odd acting and the robots, it would have been. As it is, it's good if you fast-forward past the robot drama.

The Maze Runner (Bilingual)
The Maze Runner (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Dylan O'Brien
Price: CDN$ 21.99
6 used & new from CDN$ 7.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WCKD is good, Feb. 17 2015
This review is from: The Maze Runner (Bilingual) (DVD)
"The Maze Runner" had the dubious honor of being described as... well, a sort of "Hunger Games" aimed more at a male audience. And that's not really accurate. Aside from the futuristic setting, it has very little in common with Suzanne Collins' trilogy.

And the film adaptation of James Dashner's first Maze Runner book is a pretty solid little action movie -- a more sedate and orderly "Lord of the Flies" mingled with cyborg monsters, a vast ever-shifting maze and a world transformed into a smoking ruin. While it leaves a lot of questions unanswered (presumably for the sequels), the story is thick with action and suspense, as well as some very solid young actors.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) awakes in an industrial elevator, which deposits him in a grassy, forested expanse called the Glade. It's populated entirely by other teen boys, all of whom have no memory of anything but their names. Their leader Alby (Aml Ameen) has organized the Gladers into a rudimentary society, with different groups handling different functions.

But the most striking thing is the Maze, which completely surrounds the Glade and shuts its gates at night. The Runners venture out every day -- but if they don't return by nightfall, they'll be trapped in the maze with the monstrous, techno-organic Grievers. And nobody has ever survived that. But Thomas manages to not only survive, but kills one of the Grievers.

Despite the dislike of the enforcer Gally (Will Poulter), Thomas' triumph inspires hope in the Gladers -- and a device salvaged from the Griever's corpse allows him to unlock new parts of the Maze. But after this, more things change -- a mysterious girl named Teresa (played by Not Kristen Stewart... sorry, Kaya Scodelario), who is eerily familiar to Thomas; attacks from Grievers inside the Glade; and a final excursion to escape the Maze once and for all. But what will they find when they do finally get out?

"Maze Runner" is a movie that gets a lot of mileage from its mysteries -- since all the characters have amnesia, the audience finds out what's going on as they do. Who are they? Why are they in the Glade? Who put them there? Who built the Maze, and WHY? Is Thomas' presence what is actually triggering all these changes? And why does nobody notice that the genetically-engineered cyborg scorpion-blobs are CLEARLY not natural?

While most movies might trip themselves up over these questions, director Wes Ball -- who had never directed a full-length feature before -- does a pretty good job with the fast, action-packed pace, never allowing the central mysteries to bog down the pace. He reveals the answers little by little, interspersed with adrenaline-soaked scenes where the characters run desperately from Grievers, scamper under massive doors and dodge the shifting walls and "blades." He really brings across the menace of the Maze.

And Ball doesn't dodge the grimmer aspects of this movie, such as the Gladers pushing a poisoned boy into the Maze because of his violent behavior, or the bloody, violent deaths of some of the well-established characters. It adds a sense of real risk and fear to the story, and a feel that these kids are genuinely at risk... although given the revelations at the movie's end, it's hard to see why their lives are being so casually snuffed out.

Perhaps the movie's biggest flaw is that it doesn't really seem to address what the Glade's populace would be like -- you'd expect more of a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere when Alby is gone, leaving only an erratic jerk as the leader. And... well, in a place populated entirely by teenage boys, you would expect them to be a bit more aggressive with Teresa, even if she does throw things at them.

It also has a well-rounded, solid cast (although almost completely male). Despite the blandly heroic qualities of Thomas (you know, bravery and mercy and whatnot), Dylan O'Brien does a pretty good job making him a likable character, and he has some excellent support from the calmly commanding Ameen, Ki Hong Lee as Thomas' Runner friend, Blake Cooper as the endearing, apple-faced "kid" of the group, and Thankfully Not Kristen Stewart... uh, Scodelario as Teresa. Poulter also has a solidly antagonistic role as Gally, a guy who values the status quo and mistakenly believes that getting rid of Thomas will magically fix everything, because he can't face the idea of life outside the Glade.

With its lightning-fast, complicated action and mystery-wrapped plot, "Maze Runner" is a solid post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie -- despite some small problems, it's a gripping story that leaves you eagerly awaiting the next part.

A Room With A View [Import anglais]
A Room With A View [Import anglais]
Offered by Rarewaves-CA
Price: CDN$ 8.05
14 used & new from CDN$ 8.04

5.0 out of 5 stars On one's first visit to Florence, one must have a room with a view, Feb. 15 2015
In romance movies, there is always some obstacle that needs to be overcome before the lovers can come together for good. But what if the obstacle is one of the lovers?

Such is the problem in "A Room With A View," a classic Merchant-Ivory film adapted from E.M. Forster's lightest and sweetest novel. And while it follows the will-they-won't-they formula of most romcoms, there's a poignancy and enchanted quality to the movie that results -- director James Ivory fills it with exquisitely lush countryside, a natural unfolding of romantic and personal problems, and a magnificent cast playing characters who end up being quite likable.

After a childhood spent in a small, idyllic Surrey village, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) journeys to Italy with her middle-aged cousin/chaperone Charlotte (Maggie Smith). Charlotte is dismayed when their rooms at the pensione don't have a view, which inspires the outgoing but clueless Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) to volunteer the more "viewy" rooms of himself and his awkward, quiet son George (Julian Sands).

During the stay, Lucy becomes better acquainted with George, the pleasant Reverend Beebe (Simon Callow), some nice old ladies, and a cheesy romance novelist (Judi Dench). Then George impulsively and passionately kisses Lucy in a field of flowers, but Charlotte convinces Lucy that he's just a rake seeking an easy conquest.

Upon their return to Surrey, Lucy becomes engaged to a pompous and wealthy young man, Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), and seems destined for a completely conventional life. But then she learns that Cecil has arranged for a local country villa to be rented by the Emersons -- and George's friendship with her brother causes him to enter her orbit. Soon Lucy finds that not only are George's feelings for her very real, but she may not be able to hide what she feels for him as well.

Out of all of Forster's stories, "A Room With A View" is perhaps the lightest and most enchanting -- there aren't any sudden deaths, contrived obstacles, social upheavals or then-taboo subjects. It's just a sweet love story, where the lovers' biggest problem is that one of them is reluctant to admit that she loves the other. There are a few convenient coincidences (which George chalks up to "fate"), but for the most part, it's all about two people's awkward, rocky road to finding true love.

And Ivory makes every scene like a glorious painting come to life -- the lush Italian countryside and sunlit cities, the quaint English villages, the forests full of murky ponds and waving ferns. The story unfolds at a gradual, pleasant pace, punctuated by pretty tableaus of tennis, carriage rides and meanders through the woods, and dialogue that ranges from amusing ("Why shouldn't she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!") to beautiful in its simplicity ("He doesn't love you. But I love you. I want you to have your own thoughts and ideas and feelings, even when I hold you in my arms!").

Occasionally Ivory's artistic taste gets a bit self-indulgent (a very long, mildly homoerotic nude frolic/wrestling match by Beebe, Frederick and George in the woods), but he knows when to insert gentle humor and a tinge of bittersweetness (Charlotte's unspoken lament over her own lost chances at love).

And one of the most striking things about the story is how likable everyone is. All the characters have flaws (Cecil is a snob, Charlotte is an uptight Victorian, Lucy is excessively stubborn, Mr. Emerson is loud and clueless, George is socially awkward) but they ultimately all prove to be good, kind people when their flaws and mistakes are revealed to them. There is no villain or even an antagonist -- though Cecil seems like he will be the major obstacle to George and Lucy's happiness, the sudden breaking of their engagement shows that he isn't that bad a guy, and that he did care for her.

It also helps to have a magnificent cast, including Bonham-Carter, Sands, Smith, Eliott, Dench and Day-Lewis. Bonham-Carter gives a sublime performance in particular, and though Ivory often reminds us that Lucy is unconsciously lying to herself and everyone else, she nails it in a final emotional outpouring in front of Mr. Emerson. Sands is outstanding as a passionate, beauty-loving young man who doesn't really know how to properly woo a young lady, as the counterpoint to the repressed, over-cautious Smith, who has to rediscover what young love can be. And while Day-Lewis seems to be playing a caricature at first, he does imbue the character with depth and a measure of likability.

The excellent actors and glorious direction make "A Room With A View" a glorious experience -- a warm'n'fuzzy period romance with characters that are easy to like. Bright, bittersweet and a treat for the senses.

The Prisoner: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
The Prisoner: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 476.32
9 used & new from CDN$ 179.21

5.0 out of 5 stars I am not a number! (some spoilers), Feb. 15 2015
Imagine living on an idyllic seaside in a temperate climate, where everyone is friendly and pleasant, and all your needs are taken care of. Sounds fun, right? Well, not if you were kidnapped there, and now can't leave.

That is the premise of "The Prisoner: The Complete Series," which is all about the fierce defiance of a mini-totalitarian state. While a few things have gotten dated (a big computer?), the series itself is timeless -- a powerfully prickly performance by Patrick McGoohan, a message about freedom, and an increasingly relevant message about cruel governments that watch, control and manipulate people under the guise of friendly democracy.

A British secret agent (McGoohan) quits his job, and goes home to pack his things. But someone gasses him into unconsciousness, and he awakens in a strange Village by the sea, which seems to be a high-tech Mod-Mediterranean paradise. It's occupied entirely by former secret agents like himself, and there is no way out. Anyone who tries to escape is swallowed whole by the Rover (a giant white bouncing balloon-thing) and brought back to the Village.

The reason Number Six (as the agent is now called) is there is because the people in charge of the Village want to know why he quit. But he steadfastly refuses to tell them. A series of Number Twos rule the village -- some casual, some jovial, some sadistic, some brittle and neurotic -- and continue trying to learn Six's secrets. In turn, Six keeps finding new schemes for escaping the Village, while also trying to find out who the mysterious Number One is. But he soon finds that he can't trust anyone in the Village -- anyone might be a spy, no matter how earnest they may seem.

And as he schemes a way out, Six must deal with a mysterious doppelganger of himself, a craft exhibit used to escape, an elaborate guided dream revealing who he might sell out to, an election for Number Two, an education technique used for brainwashing, a grotesque costumed ball, a coordinated rebellion, a paranoid Number Two, a forthcoming assassination, an "ultrasonic lobotomy," body-swapping, and various forms of mind control. Will he break, or will he triumph over the Village?

Forget the Star-Trekian sets and Mod clothing, because "The Prisoner" achieves timelessness by focusing on the eternal struggle between the individual and the soul-crushing authority figures. It can be seen in history, in fiction, and in real life today. The Village is ruled by people who demand conformity and subservience, and use paranoia, surveillance, medicine and manipulation to achieve their ends... which frustrates them all the more when Six refuses to be a number, and refuses to surrender his inner thoughts to them. Even if freedom is impossible, he's going to keep trying.

A lot of this rests on McGoohan, who had previously played a similar character in the series "Danger Man" (aka "Secret Agent" in the United States). He plays the unnamed ex-secret agent with steely, prickly resolve; he comes across as tightly wound and secretive, but also possessing a wickedly barbed sense of humor and a brain like a bag of ninja cats. In one episode, he drives one Number Two almost to madness by doing codes and secret-agenty stuff.... merely to mess with him.

It's also a series that grows progressively darker and more twisted. The first few episodes are clever, complicated little thrillers, usually following Number Six finding new and interesting ways to escape, only to be thwarted by the Number Two du jour ("This is your world. I am your world. If you insist on living a dream you may be taken for mad"). It's intense and sharply-written, with much back-and-forth between Six and the people he loathes. But as the series unfolds, the Village's leadership becomes increasingly desperate, and their invasions of Six's mind and psyche become more grotesque. It soon becomes clear that something is going to have to break.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the ambiguous ending that McGoohan wrote and directed. It's.... weird. Large chunks of it are nearly incomprehensible, and it leaves us wondering what has happened to the nameless ex-agent. Has he escaped the grasp of his captors, or is he entrapped in a less physical way? The ambiguity is so great that McGoohan had to go into hiding because it drove the fans so crazy.

It lasted only a single short season, but "The Prisoner: The Complete Series" is a hauntingly harrowing series, with clever writing, timeless themes and a spellbinding lead performance by Patrick McGoohan. Sci-fi, spy thriller, or a philosophical allegory -- call it what you will, it's a mesmerizing show.

Beowulf: A Translation And Commentary
Beowulf: A Translation And Commentary
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 26.23
26 used & new from CDN$ 21.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Far from the lights of Heorot, Feb. 5 2015
Given his passionate love for all things Anglo-Saxon, it's hardly surprising that the famed writer/philologist J.R.R. Tolkien did his own translation of the Old English epic, "Beowulf."

And since Christopher Tolkien is apparently determined to release every scrap of paper his father ever doodled on, the public is finally getting to see Tolkien's "Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary," along with an original piece based on Beowulf known as "A Sellic Spell." The translation is pretty good (if slightly clunky at times), but the real magic exists in Tolkien's own verse, which glimmers with the starlit beauty that he was so well-known for.

A creature named Grendel is attacking the beautiful mead-hall of Heorot, sneaking in at night to carry off and/or kill innocent people. King Hrothgar is powerless to stop the monster. But then Beowulf, an already-legendary hero from Geatland, arrives at Heorot specifically to kill Grendel -- and using only his superhuman strength, he is able to arm-wrestle Grendel to death. Not joking.

But that isn't the end of his troubles. Grendel's equally grotesque mother is enraged by her child's death, and attacks Heorot to lure Beowulf out. This time, he'll be fighting on HER turf, a toxic swamp where only he can go, and the legendary hero must marshal all his strength to stop the monster once and for all. And as the years go by, he's faced with a terrible new enemy, one that threatens his homeland and everyone in it.

Tolkien's translation of "Beowulf" is probably one of the more accurate, loving ones that is easily available, since the man had encyclopedic knowledge of Old English and its literature. And he clearly made an effort to maintain the meaning of everything he translated, giving it the rough, earthy flavour of Old English literature -- as lovely as some passages are, it's a story awash in blood, mead and noble warriors threatened by "billows of destroying fire."

The translation can be clunky at times, with a few lines feeling like they were translated by Yoda ("Thereafter was fortune in war vouchsafed to Hrothgar"). This is not a work to be read casually. Instead, it seems to be Tolkien's attempt to stick as closely to the original text as possible, complete with kennings ("warriorking," "ring-mail," "hearth-comrades") and a tendency to splinter sentences into a string of connected phrases. He did abandon the caesura (which split every line rhythmically), instead making long, songlike stanzas that flow like streamwater.

The biggest problem is perhaps that this is a translation, and as such does not allow Tolkien's writing skills to fully emerge. A few moments suit his rich leaves-and-starlight style of writing ("He set the radiance of the sun and moon as a light for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the world with boughs and with leaves..."), but not as often as I could have wished.

That is saved instead for "A Sellic Spell," which was Tolkien's attempt to recreate what he imagined the original story may have been like, based on his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. Here, Tolkien's imagination and linguistic skill are freer and smoother -- he presents "Beewolf's" story like a mythic fairy tale, with moments of luminous beauty ("they saw the King’s house standing in a green dale; and all the valley was lit with the light of the golden roof") mingled with gory violence (" the hide split, and the bones burst, and her head rolled off down the passage into the water below, dripping with blood").

By Tolkien's own admission, "Sellic Spell" does not exactly mirror the plot of the actual literary "Beowulf." Instead, like so many of his works, it seems to be an intersection between literature, fantasy and myth -- he speculates on the original names of various characters ("Unfriend," "Grinder," "Beewolf"), while also streamlining out some of the filler and adding a more magical, almost ethereal quality to the prose.

And finally, Tolkien attempted to rework the story into "The Lay of Beowulf," which is more of a medieval-style ballad than an epic poem. Anyone who has read Tolkien's poetry will recognize his lovely style here, with many references to the moon, the sea, flames, jewels, swords and gold. It echoes of the songs and poems that he wove into "Lord of the Rings" (" Far over the misty moorlands cold/where the wild wolf howled upon the wold,/past dragon’s lair and nicor’s hold/and far from the lights of Heorot").

"Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary" is not the easiest translation of this classic work for casual readers, but it may be one of the most loving -- especially with the original retellings that Tolkien himself created, both in song and in prose. A long-lost treasure, at last revealed.

The Conspirator [Blu-ray + DVD]
The Conspirator [Blu-ray + DVD]
DVD ~ Robin Wright
Offered by Just 4 Games
Price: CDN$ 16.95
4 used & new from CDN$ 12.44

3.0 out of 5 stars She kept the nest, Feb. 5 2015
Anyone with a passing knowledge of American history knows that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth. What ISN'T commonly known is that Booth was part of a ring of Confederate conspirators.

And one of the most important trials of the 19th century comes to life in "The Conspirator," Robert Redford's dramatization of the trial of Mary Surratt and the men who conspired with Booth. James McAvoy and Robin Wright both give stellar performances as a clever young lawyer and a woman railroaded by an angry, vengeful government, but the direction often loses its energy and becomes rather flat and stagey.

In 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the North is celebrating its victory. But then assassins are sent to attack the Secretary of State and the Vice President. And at a play that Lincoln is attending, Booth (Toby Kebbell) shoots the president, shouts "Sic Semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!" and somehow manages to escape the theatre. The dying Lincoln is taken to a nearby house, and dies shortly after. The conspirators are hunted down, and Booth is killed when they are burned out of the barn where they are hiding.

One of the suspects is Mary Surratt (Wright), the mother of one conspirator and the owner of a boardinghouse where they met. Since the government is determined to punish as many people as possible, she is presumed by everyone -- including former soldier/up-and-coming lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) -- to be completely guilty.

Then Aiken finds himself in the horrible position of having to defend her, even though he doesn't doubt her guilt. But her innocence or guilt soon become less certain in his mind, even as he realizes that the trial of the suspects is not a true trial -- witnesses are bribed or threatened, and the prosecution refuses to even consider that Mary might not have been a conspirator. As Aiken's life and career fall apart, he throws himself into the last desperate attempts to save her from the hangman's noose.

While obviously the assassination of Lincoln was an important moment in American history, "The Conspirator" looks at the smaller, groundbreaking changes that happened because of it -- namely, the first execution of a white woman by the federal government, and the new right of a civilian trial instead of a merely-a-formality-before-we-hang-everyone military tribunal. It's a sobering reminder that government corruption is nothing new, and that basic rights like a proper trial by one's peers must be fought for constantly, not just once.

As the backdrop to this drama, Redford does an excellent job portraying the fractured, fragile nature of a post-Civil War United States -- there's an undercurrent of seething rage and pain from both sides, glazed over with Washington parties and jaunts to elegant theatres. And the depiction of Lincoln's final hours is absolutely riveting, with the desperate and hysterical citizens crowding outside the building where he dies, surrounded by dead-eyed, hopeless officials and doctors.

Unfortunately, the movie loses a lot of its energy after the first half hour. After that first burst of energy, Mary and the conspirators are all captured and... it simply becomes very very contemplative and stagey, more like a play than a proper movie. Redford doesn't seem to quite know how to inject suspense into the courtroom drama scenes, relying mostly on the occasional outburst from Wright or McAvoy to give it some passion. So for long stretches, it just sort of drags itself along, floating Aiken through subplots that aren't very interesting (such as his visit to Mary's daughter).

McAvoy and Wright both give excellent performances here, as world-weary people who hail from opposite sides of a war that has blistered them both -- he is a fierce young lawyer whose love of justice overrides any blind loyalty to the War Department, and she is a quiet, tormented enigma whose guilt or innocence is never entirely clear. There are some solid performances by Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Tom Wilkensen and Danny Huston, but the story effectively revolves around those two actors and the oddly combative chemistry they share.

"The Conspirator" is graced with some excellent performances and a great setting, but Robert Redford's stage-like story seems to lose its momentum after the first half hour, making it a chore to sit through some of the story. A fascinating if flawed story.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 25.13
39 used & new from CDN$ 12.49

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More things in heaven and earth, Feb. 4 2015
The mind of Neil Gaiman is a fertile place of gods, monsters, aliens, magic lingering in ordinary places and a sense that the world is a much wilder, stranger place than we think it is.

And all those things come up in "Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances," Gaiman's third collection of his short stories and poems -- while these stories can be as different from each other as humanly possible (an ode to David Bowie, a few twisted fairy tales, a historical story about a Scottish dwarf with revenge on his mind), they share a sense of magic and cosmic wonderment, misting through his elegant, versatile prose.

Among the tales here:
* "Black Dog," a story set a few years after "American Gods." Shadow is wandering through England on his way back to the US, when he meets a kindly couple who allow him to stay in their home. But the specter of a faerie dog brings death, mystery, and an ancient magic that could be fatal even to an American god...
* A Scottish dwarf asks a former reaver to help him find a certain cave, supposedly filled with magical gold. As the two men journey to the Misty Isle, the dwarf gradually reveals his true reason for being there.
* A haunting look at the old age of Sherlock Holmes, reflecting on the decay of the British empire and solving one final mystery.
* A timid young artist hears that his first teenage girlfriend has been in contact with some of the people he knows... and the problem is, he made her up.
* Jemima Glorfindel Petula Ramsey's questionnaire, and exactly what happened to her fake-tan-loving sister Nerys. Hint: it involves floating, glowing, claims of godhood and dark chocolate.
* A year's worth of mini-stories, involving ghosts, pirates, genies, preteen soldiers, vicious ducks, a brazier, a homeless kid, a mysterious string of bizarre deliveries, disagreeing parents, igloos made of books, Australian fires and what they create, and a magical ring that keeps coming back.
* A handful of poems, about chairs, landladies, Saint Columba, a witch who "hid her life in a box made of dirt," and the evil fairy from "Sleeping Beauty."
* A flea market seller who has a strange story of time travel, interdimensional rooms, ancient empires, tiny statuettes and a boy named Farfal The Unfortunate.
* Obediah Polkinghorn, the Uninventor, who has the ability to alter reality so that certain inventions (flying cars, jetpacks, the Wispamuzak) never come into existence, and what he does when he finished uninventing forever.
* "Nothing O'Clock," a Dr. Who fanfic (does it count as a fanfic if it's professional published, and is by a man who has written actual episodes?), where the Doctor and Amy arrive on Earth... only to discover that it is devoid of humans, after being officially sold to the Kin. How to fix it? Go back to when it was first sold by an unwitting family!
* A pair of fairy tales retold in Gaiman's sensibilities -- an update of "Diamonds and Toads" set in a bleak, dreary urban environment, and "The Sleeper and the Spindle," a sort of mash-up of "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty," starring a queen who decides to rescue a legendary sleeping princess with the help of her dwarf sidekicks.
* And several other stories that linger on the fringes -- a "lunar labyrinth" that grants wishes to people who successfully navigate it, a love letter, a mother lamenting her son's horrifying death at sea, a pleasantly unimpressive mother who knows of interesting "adventures," a man struggling to remember the name of a great author, a guy who learns of the madness that comes from visiting Jerusalem, a spooky little story about the terrifying Click-Clacks, and a mythic sci-fi ode to David Bowie.

Many authors are commonly called "magical," but Neil Gaiman deserves the label more than most -- he has a special knack for unpredictability that few authors can even approach. Not only can anything happen in his collections of short stories, but you have no idea what KIND of "anything" will flow from the wellspring of his mind. There's no obvious pattern, no overarching theme that might restrict his imagination.

And that is one of the best aspects of "Trigger Warning." In this collection, Gaiman deftly leaps from the macabre to the whimsical, the gloriously weird to the dramatic, the haunting to the magical. No matter how mundane the setting, he can draw back a veil and reveal something that was hidden from our eyes, whether it's dark magic ("Black Dog," "About Cassandra"), personal tragedy and drama ("Down To A Sunless Sea," "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains") or just the strangeness of the world we live in which we otherwise might not notice ("Jerusalem").

And his writing is no less versatile. While every story is written in a crisp, shimmering style that is very recognizably his, he drifts around through different kinds of stories -- one is told through a questionnaire, another is an overheard monologue, and some are just conversations. What unites them is the glimmering clarity of his writing, full of beautiful similes ("His hair framed his face like a wolf-grey halo") and snappy cleverness ("And pterodactyls have been extinct for fifty million years." "If you say so, dear. Your father never really talked about it").

Neil Gaiman at his best is on display in "Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances" -- a collage of shorter pieces, ranging from darkly enchanting novellas to magical little puffs of whimsy. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but a few of them can be found here.

The Babadook (Bilingual)
The Babadook (Bilingual)
DVD ~ Essie Davis
Price: CDN$ 15.49
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're NOTHING! (some spoilers), Feb. 1 2015
This review is from: The Babadook (Bilingual) (DVD)
The best horror movies are the ones that don't just fling gore in your face, but find a way to tap into some primal fear or dark emotion that we hide out of sight.

And that dark, ragged core is what powers "The Babadook," a hauntingly eerie movie that becomes outright terrifying as it progresses, following a young single mother's descent into a living nightmare. Director Jennifer Kent dances on the fine line between psychological horror and the supernatural, slowly building up the sense of creeping horror as the Babadook slowly takes over the mother's life.

Ever since the sudden death of her husband (while driving her to the hospital to deliver their son), has been struggling to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) alone while working full time. Samuel is a rather troubled child -- he rarely sleeps, often has screaming tantrums and clashes with other children. Even worse, he's building homemade weapons to ward off imaginary monsters, which eventually gets him suspended from school.

Then, one night she reads him a disturbing pop-up book about a monster called The Babadook. This book makes Samuel act even more erratically, disturbing others with his stories about the Babadook, so Amelia destroys the book... only to have it reappear, with new pages that show the Babadook coming from INSIDE her, and graphically show her killing her dog, her son, and finally herself. Also, the pages bleed.

And in the days that follow, the horror of the Babadook comes closer. Creepy phone calls. Beetles in the walls. Glass in the food. A strange figure lurking in the shadows, watching them and scuttling like an insect on the ceiling. Amelia's sanity begins to unravel, as do her conflicting feelings for her son, as she finds that she can't get away from the Babadook...

"The Babadook" has a sort of visceral creepiness, preying on every fear you've had in the night -- fear of what lurks in the shadows. There is something behind the door, in the hall outside your bedroom, scuttling over the ceiling, screeching at you in a hoarse, froglike voice. It's a giant shadow with a perpetually yawning maw, a top hat and giant blank eyes. It will erupt from inside you, turning you into a dead-eyed moppet as it "wears your skin"

But the nightmarish quality goes deeper, into the symbolic. The Babadook is grief. The Babadook is depression. The Babadook is every ugly, twisted, vile feeling that you hide away inside, festering until it tears its way out. In short, the most horrifying thing about the Babadook is that he isn't just some spectral bogeyman who can be repulsed somehow. He comes from the darkest human emotions -- and if they are repressed, they fester and grow into something truly nightmarish. Those emotions are very real, and very dangerous.

And it's even more nightmarish because we see it in both the main characters. He even looks like a huge, monstrous parody of Samuel -- large eyes, top hat, wide mouth. And as Amelia finally faces down the Babadook, we see her shadow slowly transform into the murky silhouette glimpsed in the book.

This is the first full-length movie Jennifer Kent has made, and she knows how to fill you with dread. She veils the entire movie in pale, ghostly light, which serves to make both Amelia and Samuel look ethereal and almost ghostly. It also makes the pitch-black shadows even deeper, including the occasional glimpse of the Babadook. The house transforms into a gothic carnival, and seemingly mundane scenes like Amelia watching TV become absolutely freakish.

And the final half hour is a single long nightmare, as Amelia goes on a rampage -- she murders the dog, screeches like a banshee, and tells her son, "You little pig... you don't know how many times I wished it was you, not him, that DIED!" Even when Samuel retaliates with "Home Alone"-style booby-traps and attacks, the the experience utterly harrowing. And at times, you can't tell if there is something supernatural at work, or whether Amelia is simply going mad.

Essie Davis is an absolute revelation as Amelia -- she conveys all the frazzled, desperate impatience of a woman whose life is barely holding together. She's sexually frustrated, sleep-deprived, lonely and has to deal with the constant judgement of moms with easier lives. Her pale pixie face and wispy blonde hair make her even more frightening as we see Amelia's eyes grow empty and her actions become erratic... and then fill with strength when she finally confronts the Babadook.

In that sense, she's well-paired with Noah Wiseman -- he has the look of a changeling child, with large shadowed eyes, a pale face, a mop of curly hair and and a wide mouth. He's very good at being annoying in a normal kid way (kicking the seat while screeching), and in the final quarter we also glimpse Wiseman's skill at playing a kid who has clearly guessed his mother's tangled feelings about him, but who loves her nevertheless.

You can't get rid of the Babadook, but "The Babadook" mingles skin-crawling, visceral horror with a glimpse of the darkness that can fester in a person's soul. The most sublime horror movie for a long, long time, and the herald of three substantial talents.

Farmer Giles of Ham : The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall, and King of the Little Kingdom
Farmer Giles of Ham : The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall, and King of the Little Kingdom
by J. R. R. Tolkien . Christina Scull . Wayne G. Hammond
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from CDN$ 21.86

4.0 out of 5 stars In, Feb. 1 2015
In addition to his epic "Lord of the Rings" and the surrounding mythology, JRR Tolkien wrote a lot of brief, often light little fantasy novellas.

And if "Lord of the Rings" is a seven-course meal, "Farmer Giles of Ham" (in the vulgar tongue) is a pleasant little hors-d'oeuvre whose flavour lingers on the tongue. Tolkien wrote this in a charming, arch style, and seems to have had fun subverting some of the fantasy cliches that he helped create -- particularly that of the dragonslaying hero and the dragon he must deal with.

Aegidius de Hammo (or in the "vulgar tongue," as Tolkien archly tells us, Farmer Giles of Ham) is a pleasant, not-too-bright farmer (a bit like Barliman Butterbur) who leads a fairly happy, sedate life. Until the day his excitable dog Garm warns him that a giant (deaf and very near-sighted) is stomping through and causing mayhem. Giles takes out his blunderbuss and takes a shot at the giant, and inadverantly drives him off.

Naturally, Giles is hailed as a hero. Even the King is impressed, and sends him the sword Caudimordax (vulgar name: Tailbiter), which belonged to a dragonslaying hero. By chance, the not-so-fierce dragon Chrysophylax Dives has started pillaging, destroying and attacking the nearby areas. Can a not-so-heroic farmer drive off a not-so-frightening dragon?

"Farmer Giles of Ham" is one of those Tolkien stories that seems to be aimed at very literate kids, or adults who haven't lost that taste for very British, arch whimsy. It's a fast, fun little adventure story with blundering giants, greedy dragons and unlikely heroes. It's not epic and it's not deep, but it is entertaining -- especially since Tolkien expertly blends the whole high fantasy thing with a wicked sense of humour ("if it is your notion to go dragonhunting jingling and dingling like Canterbury Bells, it ain't mine").

Particularly, Tolkien seems to be gently mocking medieval fables, both as a linguist (the "vulgar tongue" comments) and as a storyteller (he young dragons exclaiming that they always knew "knights were mythical!"). Most particularly, he seems to be mocking the classic heroes who slay dragons or giants, mainly by making both heroes and monsters not quite as threatening as expected. He inserts plenty of humorous anachronisms (the blunderbuss) and clever in-jokes (Caudimordax, a sword which is incapable of being sheathed if a dragon is within five miles of it).

Farmer Giles is a pretty fun character -- he's presented as a fairly ordinary, common-sensical person called upon to do some bizarre and extraordinary things... so, basically a typical Tolkien hero, although he has a talking dog that keeps causing trouble for him. His enemy Chrysophylax is in a sense his opposite, being " cunning, inquisitive, greedy, well-armoured, but not over bold." He's kind of like a funny version of Smaug, minus the destruction of cities.

"Farmer Giles of Ham" is a charming little chunk of Tolkien's minor work -- a relentlessly wry, clever little fantasy story about a most unlikely hero. Enchanting (in the vulgar tongue).

Furies of Calderon
Furies of Calderon
by Jim Butcher
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.87
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4.0 out of 5 stars Crows!, Jan. 31 2015
This review is from: Furies of Calderon (Paperback)
What do you get if you cross "Avatar: The Last Airbender" with "Spartacus," and set it in a strange world with giant wolf-people, Amerindian elves and elemental furies? As written by the author of the Dresden Files?

A thousand kinds of awesome, that's what.

And "Furies of Calderon" is at least nine hundred kinds of that awesome, serving as a solid kick-off to Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. The book shows that snarky urban fantasy isn't all Butcher is good at, allowing the introduction of a truly epic fantasy world with complicated politics, bloody battles, some terrifying insectile monsters, and a scrappy young hero who seems to be the exact opposite of the whole Chosen One/Luke Skywalker archetype.

First, backstory. The series is set in another world where the Lost Legion somehow ended up, and they formed their own pseudo-Roman society which is currently at a sort-of-medieval level of development. They also have control of elemental furies, which allow them to manipulate fire, water, earth, wood, air and metal. Every single person in Alera has at least one or two furies at their beck and call... except teenage Tavi, who is inexplicably furyless.

While tracking a lost sheep, Tavi and his uncle Bernard encounter a Marat warrior -- which is a big deal, since the Marat are the Alerans' bitter enemies, and were driven out of this land years ago. This shocking news is backed by the arrival of a young Cursori spy named Amara, who has discovered a plot against the First Lord of Alera, and only narrowly escaped being killed by her own mentor. When Bernardholt is invaded by the conspirators and their vicious neighbor Kord, the family ends up scattered across the land.

Specifically, Isana has been captured by the vicious, misogynistic Kord; Bernard and Amara are desperately trying to warn the nearest Aleran Legion of the impending invasion of Marat; and Tavi and the mentally-challenged slave Fade have been captured by the Marat. Tavi soon discovers that he can use the Marat's strict laws and traditions for his own ends, and may be able to stop the invasion -- or at least give the Alerans a chance of victory -- if he is able to win a life-threatening challenge in a forest full of insectile monsters.

It's easy to become burned out on epic fantasy. Most of them just copy-and-paste the same old formula from Tolkien -- a medieval world with an Anglo slant, with some magic, castles, gods, swords and nobles. Oh, and a healthy dose of forest-dwelling elves/mountain-dwelling dwarves/wizards. And even if most epic fantasy authors don't directly copy Tolkien's world-building approach, then they just copy Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin or (shudder) Terry Goodkind.

So it's a credit to Butcher's world-building that Alera actually feels pretty fresh -- it's a Roman-inspired society, and the "elves" aren't ethereal arboreal supermodels, but powerful catlike people with tribes, totems and a special bond to different kinds of animals. Even the idea of furies is handled in a fascinating way, with an array of special powers (healing, flight, hiding, disguise) for every element.

Butcher also brings a more epic quality to the story by writing it in the third person -- he flits between different characters and subplots, spread all across this region of Alera. And his prose in "Furies of Calderon" tends to be more smoothly descriptive ("A brilliant moon, looming large among a sea of stars, painted the landscape below in silver and black") and less internally snarky than anything you'll find in the Dresden Files. Don't worry, the story still has plenty of hilarious moments ("Uncle Bernard! Uncle Bernard! He followed me home. Can we keep him?").

Of course, it's gloriously bloody and action-packed -- storms filled with angry furies, a vicious climactic battle, and Tavi and Kitai's adventures in the Wax Forest and the ghastly Keepers. And Butcher creates some political intrigue that promises to have far-reaching effects, even if the antagonists lose the immediate battle.

Tavi is also a pretty good hero -- rather than being a country boy who clearly has a great destiny ahead of him, he's someone that NO ONE expects anything from, because he's effectively disabled. But he compensates for his lack of furycraft by being smart, brave and clever enough to impress even a Marat chieftain. The supporting cast is similarly strong -- the intelligent, strong-willed Isana, the tragic Bernard, cruel and abused Odiana, and the brash young Marat Kitai (who has a bit of a love-hate thing going on with Tavi). And Butcher drops hints that some of them -- especially Isana and Fade -- have some very significant secrets.

For people weary of Tolkien knockoffs, "Furies of Calderon" is a clever, fast-moving spin on the whole medieval fantasy setting -- we have Romans, elemental powers and a gloriously twisted conspiracy. What more can you ask for?

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