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Phrodoe "Child Of The Kindly Midwest" (Another day older and deeper in debt...)

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Startide Rising
Startide Rising
by David Brin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.89
77 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Brilliant!, Nov. 9 2001
I just read Startide Rising for the second time, and again I was blown away by how fantastic it really is. This book is full of the ideas that make science fiction what it is: Interesting characters who have actual personalities instead of cookie-cutter mannerisms, a premise whose most intriguing elements are revealed slowly, pulling the reader along (I hate books that read like a bad made for tv movie!), and oh, about a hundred other things that make Startide a compulsively readable joy, more than worthy of the awards it has won (in spite of what Brin's detractors may say, they don't give Hugos and Nebulas to also-rans and bad writers).
The basic plot is this: The neo-dolphin-crewed Earthship, Streaker, has put down on the ocean world of Kithrup to make repairs. Streaker is being chased by a fractious, infighting consortium of galactics, who are after the potentially explosive cargo Streaker carries: possible evidence of the so-called Progenitors, who supposedly began the "Uplift" process which created all sapient beings in the known universe. (For those unfamiliar with Brin, Uplifting is the genetic engineering of presentient or near-sentient creatures, creating from basic root-stock intelligent, starfaring races. All starfaring races have uplift "patrons" -- except Terrans, which rankles the so-called galactics no end. For a more detailed explanation of all this, read the book!)
Kithrup is a hostile world; its seas contain heavy mineral salts which irritate the dolphins' skin. Worse, their situation is so tense that some of the dolphins are beginning to go primal -- that is, to revert to their wild state. It is up to Streaker's command crew, plus human assistants Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley, and chimpanzee scientist Charles Dart, to effect repairs on the ship, somehow escape the vast armada battling for the right to their cargo, and make it back to Earth.
That's the plot, and it seems kind of goofy on the face of it, doesn't it? Nothing could be futher from the truth, in fact! David Brin is a writer of immense skill and artistry, and turns what could have been a farce in lesser hands into a grand, fantastic, idea-rich story, a space opera worthy of the name. Startide is complex, full of plots and subplots, motives and murder, humor and heroics, and I've rarely read a better book, in any genre, in my life.
As just one example, since my time is short and my space is limited, let me offer the character of Captain Creideiki, the dolphin leader of the Streaker crew. Creideiki is one of the most fascinating characters ever created in a science fiction novel. He is a strong leader, wise and brave, with a metaphysical bent that nevertheless does not interfere when practical matters need taking care of. He is as complex and well-rendered as any of the human characters in Startide -- such as the impressively-rendered Toshio, or the Terragens Council agent Tom Orley, on whose heroics everything hinges ... but back to Credeiki. It is his journey through the story that is the most compelling, and kept me flipping through page after page -- more than anything, almost more than Streaker's fate, I wanted to know what happened to Creideiki next! It is rare for me to care so much about the fate of a non-human character, and that Brin was able to pull this off speaks volumes for his abilities as a writer.
I could go on and on -- one of the problems with writing about Startide is that it's SO rich in events and ideas, that it's simply impossible to cover everything I want to cover. From the incredible secret of Kithrup to the secret hidden by a select few of the Streaker dolphins, Startide Rising contains surprise after astonishing surprise, and it is no less rich the second time around than it was the first. I have little doubt that in fifty years or so, Startide (as well as the rest of the Uplift Saga) will be mentioned in the same breath as the Foundation Series, the Rama series, and the Dune saga. It's that good -- no, strike that. It's that great.
(Postscript: I've learned from Brin's home page that Startide has been optioned for a film adaptation! I can't imagine how anybody could pull that off without turning it into a glorified version of Flipper -- but even though I'm sure nothing good will come of it, I'm hoping whoever makes the attempt will prove me wrong. Remain In Light -- Phrodoe.)

The Talisman
The Talisman
by Stephen King
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
65 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A Collision Of Worlds, Aug. 31 2001
Quick aside: Given that my reviews of Stephen King have, with few exceptions, met with displeasure, I've come to look at this as something like placing my head in a lion's mouth -- after the liberal application of ground beef. Yet here I am again; hope somebody brought a suture kit! Onward:
First off, it's great to see that Talisman has been reissued in such a handsome-looking package -- I like this jacket much better than the original Viking hardcover version, which did not capture the novel's spirit at all. I'm also becoming more and more intrigued by advance word on Talisman's upcoming sequel, Black House...but that's for another time. Right now I want to address the original, a collaboration between two markedly different authors, a "collision of worlds" that produced an unexpected classic of fantastic literature. The Talisman is a brilliant, glowing, fantasy/quest adventure which, in spite of a slow start and some odd turns here and there, succeeds on just about every level.
The plot can be summed up in a few sentences: Young Jack Sawyer must save the life of his dying mother by travelling to California and retrieving the Talisman. Also involved are his travels through an alternate reality called The Territories, a medieval world where magic reigns and people Jack knows on Earth have "twinners". Lined up against Jack are the diabolical Morgan Sloat and his minions, such as the maniacal Sunlight Gardener and the demonic, shape-shifting Elroy. On Jack's side are guide and mentor Speedy Parker, Sloat's skeptical son Richard, and Wolf...more on whom in a minute. I just told the basic story in a few moments; King and Straub spin this up into over six hundred delightful pages. It is an epic coming-of-age journey, a strange and beautiful admixture of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Lord of the Rings, the Round Table's quest for the Holy Grail, and still has room for both Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece and the Christian idea of ressurrection and rebirth. Pretty impressive, eh?
The novel is full of King's immediacy and intimacy, as well as Straub's sensuality and more surrealistic tendencies -- note for instance Jack and Richard's journey through the Blasted Lands, which is a precursor for The Waste Lands in King's Dark Tower novel of the same name (see my review, he said shamelessly). The passages here read like King but have Straub's fingerprints all over them. Of course, I could be wrong; King and Straub both play with each other's styles and sensibilities so much in Talisman that playing who-wrote-what guessing games is silly. Even so, I still enjoy it, and I also enjoy the King/Straub collaborative "voice" very much, which is neither as cold nor as dull as some critics (not mentioning any names, like, say, HARLAN ELLISON) would have us believe. However, having said that, I will also say this: King rails against overuse of adverbs and the passive tense in On Writing, yet there are an overabundance of both in Talisman. However, someone who uses both as much as I should probably just shut the heck up -- so I will.
The story does move slowly at first -- sedate is perhaps the best word, and I think that's as it should be. Lord of the Rings didn't exactly get off to a slambang start either, and look at what Tolkien did with it. In any event, once you get into the story, the pages fly by. I just read the whole thing two weeks ago, and devoured it in about three days, just as I did when it was first released (gulp!) seventeen years ago. And although Jack's "Road of Trials" takes off on some odd tangents (such as the shootout at Camp Readiness, which is still too weird for me), it is still a great story, well-crafted, well-told, full of many interesting and amazing characters.
And that brings me to Wolf -- one of the finest characters either author has ever created. What a beautiful switch on every single werewolf cliche ever created, from Curt Siodmak to Robert Louis Stevenson. Just the idea that Wolf should be a good guy, let alone shepherd to a flock of Territories sheep (hysterically called "creep" by Jack), is such a brilliant conceit that it still floors me. What the authors then do with Wolf is even more impressive. Wolf is man's best friend on two legs; he's loyal, brave, fearless (sort of), fearsome, comic, and damn near steals the book away from its stalwart protagonist. Talisman achieves some of its finest (and funniest) moments in Wolf -- I can almost hear his snarly voice shouting "Right here and now, God pound it! Wolf!" as I write these lines, and I can't suppress a grin. Every kid should have a friend like Wolf...as long as they have a good strong padlock on them, that is. Heh heh heh.
Sorry. Anyway, The Talisman is a hard book to put down...in any sense of the phrase. I loved it then and love it now, and I can't wait to see what happens next, now that this chronicle of a boy has at last become the chronicle of a man. Remain in Light -- Phrodoe.

Last Emperor, the
Last Emperor, the
VHS
4 used & new from CDN$ 20.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Iron Bars Do Not A Prison Make..., Aug. 3 2001
This review is from: Last Emperor, the (VHS Tape)
...So to speak. I just watched The Last Emperor a few nights ago in preparation for this review, and I was struck again by its powerful depiction of Pu Yi as a prisoner of his own life -- as well as how Bertolucci chose to show Pu Yi as a prisoner. Scenes of Pu Yi in high places (atop a wall, on a roof, standing on the raised mound of earth where he assumes the emperorship of Manchuria), presumably places of power, change in the light of the circumstances in each scene (discovering he is emperor of China in name only, screaming "I want to go OUT!", selectively blind to the fact that Manchuria is nothing more than a puppet state run by the Japanese). Bertolucci's shots from behind railings (suggesting prison bars) and over walls (suggesting much the same) reinforce this notion. Imprisonment is indeed what it is, whether one is talking about the gilded cage of the Forbidden City, the invisible bars of Pu Yi's Japanese warders, or the Communist "re-education center" where the former Lord of 10, 000 Years spends what is perhaps the most formative decade of his life.
Pu Yi is, speaking in historical terms, a fascinating and tragic figure. Crowned at the age of three, kept isolated in the Forbidden City throughout his childhood and early adulthood, robbed and manipulated by enemies pretending friendship, then held captive by the Communists after the Cultural Revolution, Pu Yi was rarely, if ever, in charge of his own destiny. In fact, the few times he ever tried to take control of his life, he was savagely beaten down. Take for example the scene where he tries to speak to his "aides" (read: Japanese plants) about Manchurian independence from Nippon. One by one the advisors and ministers rise and walk out on him, and what begins as Pu Yi taking charge becomes Pu Yi back in his invisible prison once more. It's a heartwrenching moment, and John Lone captures exactly what Pu Yi must have felt.
In fact, Lone's performance is one of the best things in this film. He is one of those rare actors who can play melodrama without resorting to melodramatics; he acts with his eyes, and the slight alterings of expression which speak volumes on a large screen (a gentle smile, the lifting of eyebrows, a slight downturn of the mouth, etc.). Lone was born to play this role, and I consider it to be his finest performance (and I must pause here to mention the younger actors who play Pu Yi as a child, preadolescent, and teenager; they too have a tremendous onscreen presence). I also very much enjoyed Peter O'Toole as Johnston, the English teacher hired to train Pu Yi in the ways of a modern world which the he might never experience firsthand. O'Toole's quiet, understated acting supports the main story beautifully, especially as we come to see Johnston as the only man who understands, and sympathizes with, Pu Yi's predicament. (His battle to get the Emperor glasses -- i.e., to keep him from being completely blind to what is going on -- is a key moment in the film.) Joan Chen is also brilliant as Pu Yi's doomed, opium-addicted wife -- the unsettling scene where she begins eating flowers at a state reception has always stayed with me, and still raises gooseflesh on my arms.
As to Bertolucci...well, I'll admit here that I have not always been a fan of his work. I think his films are interesting, if not always to my liking; I will also say that, in my opinion, The Last Emperor is his best work. It is filled with sumptuous images, colors and textures, from the vibrant hues of the Forbidden City (and oh, what wonderful use Bertolucci makes of that strange, magical place!), to the rich red of Joan Chen's lipstick (and the whimsical imprints they leave ALL OVER a young Pu Yi's face and shaven head). The flutterings of silk, the crimson blossom of blood in a water-filled sink where Pu Yi cuts his wrists, the glimmers of light off the black pearl placed in the deceased Empress Dowager's mouth -- all of this is superb, all of it dazzles or attracts...or, sometimes, horrifies. The moment when young Pu Yi hurls his pet mouse at the doors which keep him imprisoned is a perfect example of that; the darker magenta of the mouse's blood against the bright red paint is beautiful symbolism, and you cannot help but marvel even as you cringe at Pu Yi's (admittedly somewhat justified) cruel tantrum.
In the end, this movie is about how even a life sentence in one's own skin can be commuted -- the final scenes, where Pu Yi revisits the Forbidden City, are as full of magic and wonder as the best cinematic moments should be. The film achieves closure through the use of the cricket jar -- the freeing of the cricket, and the sudden disappearance of Pu Yi, are one and the same.... Freedom comes to Pu Yi when he realizes that, in a way, the entire world is a prison (a realization which comes in the shocking scene where he discovers his own warden is now a state criminal and must die); it is what one does within those walls which can lead to freedom, or further imprisonment. The Last Emperor is a remarkable treatise on this idea; Bertolucci, and his massive, impressive cast make the most of it. This is a highly effective, affecting movie. Just writing about it has filled me with the urge to watch it again, and possibly again after that. It is a long movie, but you don't notice the hours go by while you're watching it...and a higher compliment to The Last Emperor cannot be paid. For the time you spend under its influence, you are its prisoner...and happy to be so.

Forbidden Planet (Widescreen)
Forbidden Planet (Widescreen)
VHS
3 used & new from CDN$ 39.77

5.0 out of 5 stars Serious Science Fiction, July 10 2001
If you have a moment -- and I assume you do -- I'd like to talk about Forbiden Planet. It's one of the films (along with She, Island of Lost Souls, The Day the earth Stood Still, and a handfull of others) that transformed science fiction films, from their undeserved status as kids' stuff, to serious depictions of the human condition...not to mention the alien condition, which is so often and unsettlingly similar to our own. And speaking of unsettling resemblances, have you ever noticed how much this film resembles Star Trek? Can't be helped. There's a certain "family resemblance" in a lot of s-f, and the ship/crew/new worlds gimmick was in use long before Captains Adams and Kirk appeared. Anyway, the producers of Forbidden Planet could hardly sue anyone for plagiarism, now could they?
The story is that of The Tempest; though certain events have been changed and liberties taken, the core of Shakespeare's play remains unchanged. Prospero (i.e. Morbius) guards his daughter and island-bound privacy jealously, and uses his magic to confuse and terroroize the party of sailors who've landed there. It's a small step from this to Altair-IV; with the Krell to provide Morbius' magic, Robby the Robot to act as both Caliban and Ariel, and some good old techno-huggermugger thrown in to help obfuscate things further, it's a different (but still similar) story. It's also a damned good story, a powerful depiction of a man destroyed by his darkest subconscous obsessions. It's a story that demands to be taken seriously...and in spite of such distractions as a drunken robot, not to mention the clumsiest seduction ever committed to celluloid, take it seriously we do.
One of the most important reasons this film was taken seriously was its special effects. Many of them were, and still are, some of the best of their kind. Even by today's advanced standards, a good deal of the visuals are real-looking and seamless. Watch the scene where Adams vaporizes the tiger; it's almost impossible to see the effects edit. And even though Altair is obviously a soundstage, the Krell constructions beneath Mobius' home achieve complete reality. This feels like -- no, is -- an alien environment...which leads to another great visual: Morbius, Adams and the Doc, walking on the gantry, infinitesimal specks against the massive Krell machinery all around them. And even the soundstage set has its moments -- when the monster gets caught in the force-field, and you get your first good look at its misshapen, demonic form, it's an instant edge-of-your-seat moment. Whatever you were expecting, it sure wasn't that!
As to the actors -- well, Walter Pidgeon pretty much carries the film, which is really only fair as his character is the key to everything. Anne Francis, who would later go on to immortality in a lyric from Rocky Horror Picture Show, is very good -- and absolutely gorgeous! -- as sheltered (but game) daughter Vena. And Leslie Nielsen, a very funny guy who persists in doing unfunny movies, here does an admirable job with a role that was written to be one-dimensional. Nielsen somehow stretches J. J. Adams to two-and-a-half dimensions -- now that's acting! (they've given Oscars for less!) The supporting cast perform their various script-related functions (hey, just like Star Trek!), and do so very capably...though I can't imagine why a tight-run ship like Adams' would have an alcoholic cook -- or, for that matter, why such an advanced ship would even have an old-fashioned pots-n-pans kitchen in the first place. Oh, well...even in spite of such obvious mistakes, Forbidden Planet is still a classic, a great film in any category, and will be loved by anybody who loves movies.

Hamlet
Hamlet
VHS
3 used & new from CDN$ 15.75

4.0 out of 5 stars For This Relief, Much Thanks, July 10 2001
This review is from: Hamlet (VHS Tape)
As someone who estimates Ken Branagh's films with no small regard, I was thrilled to hear about this full-length version of Hamlet. I thought that if anyone was capable of such a gargantuan task, it was Branagh...and you know what? He almost pulled it off. But while his Hamlet is excellent in many ways, it's not quite the classic it wants to be. It drags in the early goings (Polonius' lecture to Laertes is just murder to sit through), and falls short of its aims in others (some of the soliloquies don't have the heat that they should, while some are very overheated indeed). However, it's still quite good, and serves very well as a showcase for its director/star's every gift, idiosyncracy, and limitation.
The cast is an example of all three. It's chock full of RSC ringers like Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud, as well as Branagh's stable of usuals (Brian Blessed, Michael Maloney, Richard Briers). They're all keys to this film's success; Briers in particular brings a monstrous quality to Polonius I hadn't fully appreciated before. Then there are the performances that surprise you, either by how good they are or by who the actor is, or both. Kate Winslet makes some unusual acting choices here, and turns in a daring interpretation of Ophelia. The late Jack Lemmon surprises by his very presence -- but is gone so fast, what he does here is more in line with an appearance than a performance. More's the pity. Charlton Heston fares better as the Chief of the Players; he seems here to be channeling all of his past glories (and that's a lot!) into this incandescent, heartstopping role. Then there's (believe it or not) Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, who I think is just wonderful. Crystal understands that in Shakespeare, the Fool always speaks wisdom and truth; here we see that Fool unguarded, wisdom laid bare, plain in his crafty smile and twinkling eye. Other bits of "Hollywood" guest-casting are less successful -- notably Robin Williams, who plays Osrick as some kind of weird, alien interior designer. (Well, maybe Osrick is from Van Nuys or something.)
Branagh's performance and direction also wander the spectrum, His "antic dispositions" are brilliant and funny; his "To be or not to be" is eloquent if not particularly inspired; his "what a piece of work is a man" speech (one of my favorite moments in all of Shakespeare's plays) is just luminous. But he can also be shrill and overmannered (sometimes both at once, which isn't easy to do!), and it's my sad duty to report that some of Hamlet's best scenes are scenes that Hamlet isn't even in. K. B. is more successful as a director; his cinematography and art design are, as always, superb (love those mirrored doors). What trips him up here is the slow pace -- an odd thing to say about a four-hour film, but there you go. As I mentioned, some scenes in this film don't just drag, but dawdle. I can't help but think that Branagh could've cut this thing to 3 1/2 hours, and made a classic, if he'd just picked up the damned pace...
Ah well, perchance to dream and all that. I do like this version of Hamlet in spite of all its flaws -- though I will admit that it's one of my "rainy day" movies, meaning I put it on when I know I've got an afternoon to kill. Beats the heck out of golf, if you ask me. This may not be Branagh's best movie -- which is still Henry V in my estimation -- but it's still pretty good. So, to steal from the play itself: For this relief, much thanks.

The Stand
The Stand
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 47.02
45 used & new from CDN$ 9.63

5.0 out of 5 stars Do People Ever Learn Anything?, June 4 2001
This review is from: The Stand (Hardcover)
...A good question, and one which Stephen King doesn't quite answer in this masterful, frightening, breathtaking, beautiful -- yes, I said beautiful -- novel. I've read both the original edition and the uncut version; I prefer the uncut. Not for what has been restored so much as for what those restorations have done for the overall novel. The restorations of the cut sequences add immeasurably to The Stand, bringing light to places formerly shadowed, expanding the vistas to a breadth and depth that is truly astonishing. In my review of Wizard and Glass I mentioned King's lyricism; I'd like to write about that again here, because The Stand is brimming with that lyric style (which seems to have deserted King in his last few novels, Bag of Bones excepted). His line about the clock in the parlor ticking off "segments of time in a dry age", and his evocative description of Kojak's journey to reunite with Glen Bateman are key examples of what I mean. When you read those lines and passages, they sing to you. Even the darker moments, such as Larry Underwood's harrowing jaunt through the Lincoln Tunnel, and Trashcan Man's mad, scary encounter with The Kid (who seems like a distillation of every early rock pioneer who ever scared your grandparents -- there's a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis in The Kid), vibrate and pulse with that plain yet elegant language which is King's true gift.
The plot of the novel itself borrows from a few different sources (the novel Earth Abides, The Bible, T. S. Eliot, the stories about the SLA and livestock-killing chemical-weapon spills which were then current in the news), and weaves them into a new fabric. A deadly strain of the flu is accidentally unleashed on the world, by a series of mishaps that Rube Goldberg would have been proud of -- only a handfull of people are immune, and while they stare in wonder and fear at what is happening around them, we are treated to such delights (if that's the word) as mass hysteria, suicide, execution, and government-ordained slaughter -- vis-a-vis King's retelling of the Kent State tragedy, which some saw as a cheap shot at Uncle Sam, but which I feel was totally appropriate to the story. The survivors begin having dreams -- some dream of an old woman in Nebraska, named Mother Abigail. Others dream predominantly of an otherworldly, frightening personage with no face -- Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin Dude...his name is Legion, as one of the characters later points out. The dreams call the survivors -- the good ones to Boulder, the evil ones to Flagg in Las Vegas. And from there, King leads his characters into a battle between the forces of Dark and Light Magic as has rarely been seen in the realm of fantastic fiction.
The characters in The Stand are some of King's best; Stu Redman, Glen Bateman, Nick Andros, Tom Cullen, Lloyd Henried, the scarifying Trashcan Man, the Judaslike Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross...and of course King's finest creation to date, the deadly, destructive, Dionysian Randall Flagg. A word about the Walkin Dude: he's appeared in several of King's novels now, has come to be the villain of the Dark Tower series, and I would be hard put to find a character more evil, yet also more of a joy to read about, than Flagg. Like the Joker in the Batman comics, Flagg is a homicidal maniac -- but he's so damned happy about his work! There is a glee to him, a merriness that makes the character what he is. The sequence with Christopher Bradenton, is a great illustration of the Dark Man's wickedly funny menace -- ditto his first encounter with Henried in the Arizona jail. Flagg is fun -- but let's face it folks, he's also real scary. His "wedding night" with Nadine is the other side of his coin, and a more terrifying passage is hard to find in King's work.
The female characters though -- and this is typical of early King -- don't fare so well. With the exceptions of Frannie Goldsmith and Mother Abigail (more on her in a second), they all come off subordinate to the men. King even tries to rationalize this chauvanism at one point, and it makes someone of my postmodern sensibilities want to cringe. But this is a minor issue, and I won't take King to task for it. Much. The subject of Abby Freemantle is another matter. King here has created a female counterpart to Jack Halloran in The Shining, a mystical "super-black" character whose job it is to show whitey what to do, then get the hell out of the way -- not unlike J. C. in The Green Mile, Mike in It, and (to a lesser degree) Odetta/Detta in The Drawing of the Three. This is not perhaps an awful thing -- certainly others have done it before and since (cf The Legend of Bagger Vance), but neither is it very noble, despite what must have been King's best intentions. It isn't precisely demeaning, but it is condescending...and it's worth noting that one of the book's few other black characters, Rat-Man, is a stereotypical urban hood-type, whose Stepin Fetchit patois which makes you wonder how far we've really come. King himself has said that he writes well for neither blacks nor women, though he has made some inroads with respect to the latter -- see Rose Madder and Dolores Claiborne. Even so, his treatment of ethnicities and gender here is wince-inducing at times.
As to the question in the title above -- whose answer King never really gives, and rightly so -- I will say this: Maybe we never do really learn anything. After you live long enough, you see people, communities, and nations repeat the same mistakes so many times that you begin to doubt humanity's intelligence. Santayanna said that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it -- and perhaps it will be required that God teach us a lesson as fearsome and unforgettable as the one in The Stand for us to ever accept Santayanna's thesis. I hope not. In the meantime there is King's tale of dark Christianity to do the job for us, to make us think about the consequences of all we do, to warn us of the dangers of pride, and to remind us who the future is really for -- our children. And that is a lesson worth learning, indeed.

Akira (Dubbed in English)
Akira (Dubbed in English)
VHS
2 used & new from CDN$ 8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Animation For Adults, May 2 2001
Let me clarify that: I am not talking about the soft-core porno-violence that defines a lot of modern anime and manga. Rather, I'm speaking to the idea that Akira is a mature, intelligent film, written, animated and meant for mature, intelligent audiences -- the sort of people who understand that you have to eat your veggies before you get to have your ice cream. Akira is a substantial "meal" of a film, and it makes practically every other animated film (the Disney studio's "product" films in particular) seem about as nutritious as a candy bar. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that sometimes you want a little bit more than bad "feel-good" rewrites of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Victor Hugo, you know what I mean? Akira serves that need quite well. Set in 21st-century Neo-Tokyo, "31 years after World War III", the film is a twisting, turning, dark and feverish science-fantasy story. The characters are intelligently-created, the symbolism and subtext are thought-provoking but not intrusive; the story is absolutely riveting; and the animation itself is some of the best (if not the best) I've ever seen.
One of the best things about Akira is that it is not simplistic in terms of story -- plots and subplots abound here, not so much so as to confuse an attentive viewer, but definitely far more complex than 99% of the other animated films out there. On one side we have the gang of biker punks led by Kaneda and Yamagata, and the sensitive depiction of Kaneda's abrasive/protective relationship with young Tetsuo, whose tortured heart and love/hate for Kaneda radiate from every frame he's in. On the other side is the nameless Colonel (whose mannerisms and speech suggest the legendary Toshiro Mifune, and I don't think that's accidental), in charge of Neo-Tokyo security, head of the secret "Akira" project, embroiled in the City Council's endless backbiting and politicking. There are also saboteur rebels, traitors on the Council, and three "children", holdovers from the first Akira project, who hold the key to the entire film.
The movie unfolds beautifully, combining action, character and theme so subtly, there are times you hardly notice it being done -- another sign that this is not your average animation. From the dramatic yet mysterious opening, to the enthralling battle between Kaneda's gang and the villanous "Clowns", your attention is captured -- not to mention your imagination. Then a subplot involving rebels Kei and Ryu, and one of the child-humanoids, is slowly introduced, then suddenly interwoven with Tetsuo's story -- and if you haven't already been hooked, you will be. The story, which covers all its bases quite well, then goes on to involve Kaneda's search for his missing friend with Kei and Ryu's plot to kidnap one of the Akira test subjects; also interwoven are the three children with Tetsuo's newly-engineered psychic abilities. He rapidly becomes addicted to them, then corrupted by them; his already-unstable personality disintegrates and he goes mad. (A key illustration of this comes late in the film: Tetsuo's mechanical arm, which he fashions with his powers after losing his flesh-and-blood limb. The filmmakers are making the point here that Tetsuo is losing his humanity, becoming a thing instead of a person. It's a bit of symbolism which in other hands would be clumsy and obvious, but which here works so well and seamlessly you absorb it without noticing.) As the apocalyptic ending comes about, the characters and stories have all become intertwined, and nothing is left forgotten or unclear -- although it may take you two or three viewings to get the full effect. And when Akira finally emerges, after haunting the entire film like a Japanese Rebecca (not an inapt analogy, by the way, as Tetsuo continually is compared to the departed Akira), the moment is, in terms of what has gone before, the linchpin of the entire film.
A few final notes: Much has been made by critics of this film's high violence content -- if you want my honest opinion, they're full of it. Akira is no more violent than a film like Predator or Dawn of the Dead; it's just that, as Americans raised on the cartoons-are-for-kids notion (implanted in our minds mostly by Disney and Saturday morning television), we are unused to seeing such a high level of violent action in animation. But in Japan and Europe, where animation and cartooning are taken seriously as an art form, stuff like this is meant for adults, not kids. My point being, once again, that this is not a cutesy-pie kids flick, and you should not, repeat NOT, allow your kids to watch it until and unless they're teenagers (i.e. 17 or 18!). My other note is that Akira is based on the manga (magazine or "comic book") of the same name, translated versions of which are available at most specialty comic book stores. If you think Akira is cool, get some of the mangas to find out what happens next!
Finally, I want to mention that the above review is based on the Special Subtitled Edition of Akira, which is hard but not impossible to find. Unlike the dubbed version, which at best gives you a fair approximation of the original script (in much the same way as a hamburger approximates a t-bone steak), the subtitled version (the one screened at film festivals) provides a much clearer view of the complex plot, subplots, and characters -- in particular the Colonel, the Akira children, and their various motivations. ...Remain in Light -- Phrodoe.

The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective
The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective
by Harlan Ellison
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from CDN$ 59.16

5.0 out of 5 stars Truly Dangerous Visions, April 26 2001
When Harlan Ellison published Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions way back in the mists of the previous century, the speculative fiction community was turned on its ear, not just once but several times. Awards and accolades were heaped upon the participants -- none more so than Harlan himself, who brought the whole thing together. When the promised final volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, failed to materialize for thirty years, accolades turned to puzzlement, accusation, invective, and anger -- almost all of it directed at Harlan, who may or may not be the proper target. I won't enter into that debate (much of it is pointless and silly, not to mention frequently absurd and childish). The only reason I bring up the whole DV mess at all is because, in rereading Essential Ellison, I find that while other writers may have produced stories worthy of inclusion in those volumes, it is Harlan himself who, for all these years, had had the truly dangerous visions. Consider the following stories, all included in this eye-opening retrospective:
* "Lonelyache" -- a dark, mysterious tale of a man at the end of his emotional rope, which wallops you like a chunk of slate;
* Punky and the Yale Men" -- wherein a man tries to relive the violent days of his youth; one of Harlan's most underrated stories;
* "A Prayer For No One's Enemy" -- one of Harlan's most controversial tales, which puts not just anti-Semitism but all racism in its proper perspective;
* "Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine" -- a harrowing story of the days of illegal abortions, absolutely riveting;
* "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie" -- Harlan's best-ever parable about the cannibalistic world of Hollywood;
* "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" -- Harlan's delightful, delicious ode to nonconformity;
* "Jeffty Is Five" -- wistful, haunting, and scary all at once, this story (like Bradbury's "The Playground") shows that eternal youth is not all it's cracked up to be;
* "Mom" --Harlan could've talked Oedipus into leaving home;
* "Alive and Well On a Friendless Voyage" -- existential despair as only Harlan can render it;
* "A Boy and His Dog" -- I usually hate the post-apocalypse genre, but Harlan gets it right on this one;
* "The Deathbird" -- my all-time favorite Ellison story, bar none, a beautifully-constructed parable about God, the Devil, and Man's true place in the universe...
...and this list just barely scratches the surface! I haven't touched upon half of the great work in this retrospective -- such as Harlan's heartfelt, sometimes touching, oftimes scathing nonfiction and essays, or the samples of his wicked sense of humor, his brilliant screenwriting, and his absolute fearlessness and honesty in the face of every sort of mendacity and double-dealing one could imagine.
That said, there are some things missing from this book as well; my short list would include such gems as the brilliant "The Beast Who Shouted Love At the Heart of the World," the chilling "Croatoan," the hysterical "From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet" and "How's the Night Life On Cissalda?" (my nominee for Harlan's funniest-ever story), the thought-provoking "Hitler Painted Roses" and "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time", and one of my favorites, the haunting "Demon With a Glass Hand". I understand an updated version of Essential Ellison s coming out soon (soon being relative when talking about Harlan and anthologies, natch), and that it will include some new things, like the stunning "Mefisto In Onyx". I can only hope some of the above stories are included as well -- and while they're at it, here's hoping Harlan and Terry Dowling decide to drop "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge," which is my least-favorite of Harlan's works. It's full of the purple overwriting (some of it bordering on self-parody) which has marred so much of Ray Bradbury's latter-day stories. (Sorry, fellow Harlan fans, but I call 'em like I see 'em!) Harlan has said of Stephen King that King needs a good editor; reading "Revenge" makes me wonder if Unca Harlan shouldn't attend the mote in his own eye first.
That, however, is another subject for another time. (And it's a good thing Harlan eschews computers and the Internet, or I'd be getting one hell of an e-mail from him right about now!) The Essential Ellison is what I'm talking about here, and not only is it a great introduction to Harlan's immense body of classic work, it is also one of the finest collections of writing that any American author, living or dead, has ever produced. Only Mark Twain has written as well, as volubly, and on as many topics as Harlan, and only Twain was better...and I have a feeling that only Harlan will be missed as much, and celebrated as much, over the course of the next century as Twain was over the last. Enjoy him while you can, folks -- because writers like Harlan Ellison come along about once every hundred years, and their dangerous visions are not to be taken lightly.

Memnoch the Devil
Memnoch the Devil
by Anne Rice
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.89
112 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A Bold and Daring Departure, April 24 2001
Question: Why on earth should Rice (or any author) be expected to limit herself to writing one type of novel, in one style, on one note? For that seems to be what the negative reviews here seem to be insisting she do. A sampling of these would turn up such words and phrases as "it's boring," "this isn't a vampire novel," "this isn't Lestat," "it's out of character," "offensive," and many other such (let's be polite here) well-intentioned chidings...all of which sound rather put out, and many of which miss the point entirely.
First, let's take the notions that this isn't a vampire novel, that it isn't Lestat, and that his behavior is out of character, and dispense with them right off. One: It seems to me that this is a vampire novel, as it does have its share of vampires haunting the pages. Two: If you study the overall arc of Lestat's character, from Interview through to Memnoch, the overall effect is a softening of Lestat's hard, conscienceless demeanor -- The Tale of the Body Thief really brings this to the fore, in fact; read it again and see if I'm wrong. Memnoch's characterization of Lestat in my mind is perfectly in keeping with what's gone before. As to the idea that the characters do not act in keeping with their usual presentations in Rice's previous vampire novels, well, ask yourself this: If you met, in the span of a few hours, both God and Satan, and had your mind blown by both Heaven and Hell, AND had your entire belief system turned upside-rightside-inside-out, how rationally would YOU act? My guess is not very, and that was part of the point Rice was trying to make: we're far too comfortable in our various faiths, and that kind of complacency is very dangerous. We need to question more, Rice is saying. We need to ask hard questions -- even if we don't like the answers.
Which brings us nicely to addressing what a lot of people say about this novel: That it's offensive, that it portrays God as a bumbling incompetent and Lucifer as the wronged party...and worse, that he's attractive to boot. Well, let me just say this about that: This is a work of FICTION, folks. A novel. A big fat lie, told to amuse and amaze you in your unoccupied moments, nothing more. If you're offended by the notion of a fictional vampire sinking his teeth into the fictional neck of a fictional Christ on the cross (note that Lestat makes no appearances in the Bible!), then maybe your faith isn't as strong as you think it is. At the very least you need to get out more often. And so Memnoch is handsome, attractive and persuasive. So what? Isn't that what makes evil such a siren call -- that so much of the time it is attractive, tempting, seductive? Would Eve ever have been tempted if the serpent hadn't used honeyed words and gentle persuasion? Finally, God is not presented as a bumbler here so much as he is cold and indifferent to his own creation -- and haven't many of us suffered from that suspicion in our darkest moments? "Where were you when I made the world?" God asks Job when Job questions him -- in other words, I have a plan and you don't know the half of it, pal. The thought that God knows what he's doing, but doesn't trust us enough to let us know too, has driven plenty of people to question, even doubt, their own faith. (And I'll fill you in on a little secret, too. It's all right to question and doubt. I'm sure God has his doubts about us sometimes. It's when you let those doubts drive you from God that you become endangered.)
Okay, what's next? Is Memnoch boring? Well, maybe -- if you have the attention span of a gnat. (Thought I was going to be polite here; oh well...) If you go into this novel expecting typical Lestat-type adventures, you will be disappointed. If, however, you pry that cover open without any expectations other than reading a well-told, intelligently-thought-out tale, you may just be in for a treat. Yes, it is a tale that's been told before, notably by Milton in Paradise Lost ("It is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven"), but Rice comes up with a few wrinkles even Milton never thought of. This is not your average chapter of the Vampire chronicles (thank goodness)...which brings me back around to my original question. If Rice had written a more typical Lestat adventure, I'd be willing to bet that the reviews on this page would be even more scathing: "We've read this before! How about something new? It's the same thing over and over again!" etc. It's easy -- far too easy -- to tell the same story over and over again, as witness the novels of Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, and (God save us and preserve us) Barbara Cartland. Rice could make a comfortable living doing that -- but instead she comes at us (or at the very least tries to) with a different perspective nearly every time, with a different story to tell. This is how writers become better at the craft: they try new things, explore new ideas, stake out new territory in their lives and minds. This, by the way, is also how people expand their horizons, by leaving behind the old and familiar for the new and uncharted. I'm proud to say my horizons were expanded by Anne Rice's bold, daring departure from her usual fare, and hope for more of the same in the future.
P.S.: You want to read a really boring novel? Try something by Sheldon & co. I guarantee a fast cure for insomnia. Remain In Light -- Phrodoe.

Sleuth
Sleuth
VHS
2 used & new from CDN$ 34.87

5.0 out of 5 stars Games Within Games Within Games..., March 30 2001
This review is from: Sleuth (VHS Tape)
Okay, this is the serious stuff here. Movies like Sleuth are the reason I love movies -- the reason anybody should love movies, now that I think of it. Why, you ask? Well, the reasons are numerous. First off, I'm a sucker for a well-adapted film version of a stage play -- Oleanna springs immediately to mind, as do Look Back In Anger (the Richard Burton version), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (again because of Burton, and what a shame he didn't get the Oscar he so richly deserved), and Branagh's stunning Henry V (the promise of which K. B. has been trying, and mostly failing, to live up to ever since), as well as about a dozen others I haven't the space to mention. Sleuth, adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own play, stands right up there with those films. It helps that Shaffer has an idea of what a good screenplay should be -- he has a fine visual sense, as witness the first meeting between Olivier and Caine, shifted from the house's interior to the wonderful topiary maze, which sets the mood, provides moments of both humor and suspense, and establishes character, all in a span of a few minutes. Of course, I've no doubt that director Mankiewicz had a hand in this fine sequence as well, but in any event I've rarely seen such a nicely-handled piece of visual foreshadowing in any film.
I will not spoil the plot for you -- that would be unfair, even cruel. It's far better, where this film is concerned, to allow the viewer to watch the events unfold on his/her own, and to be completely dazzled by them. I will say that Sleuth is about games, games of every type and stripe, from the subtlety of chess to the pretend (or is it pretend?) brutality of cops and robbers. There are several games being played in Sleuth, sometimes more than one at the same time, and just when you think you've learned the rules of one, you find that not only have the rules changed, you're not even playing the same game any longer. All this is a roundabout way of saying that Sleuth is as delightful as the best sleight-of-hand magic trick, as intellectually rigorous as Arthur Conan Doyle's most dexterous Sherlock Holmes stories, and more wantonly, gleefully devious with its audience than the great Hitchcock ever dreamed of being (with the exception of Psycho, of course, but that's a review for another time!). Sleuth pulls the wool over your eyes so many times, and in so many ways, that even when you think you know what's going on, you don't. Behind each mask is another mask, behind each truth is the lie from which it grows...and each new surprise is delivered with Macchiavellian subtlety and nitroglycerine force. Ah, but I wax rhapsodic; excuse me. Onward:
As to the performances of the actors -- what can I say except, BRAVO! There is nothing on God's green earth like watching two supremely talented actors "going at it," so to speak -- playing roles to the hilt, with such verve and energy that you lose yourself totally in the delight of it. Such is the joy of watching Michael Caine and Sir Laurence perform in Sleuth. Two moments in particular stand out in my mind, for very different reasons. First is the sequence where the two literally play "dress-up", trying on costumes in Olivier's basement, camping it up to beat the band and having a high old time doing it. (I love Caine with the slap shoes: "I always wanted a pair of these!") The whole thing is so deliciously silly it puts me in tears of laughter, no matter how many times I see it. The second moment is the scene on the staircase (near the end of what would be Act One in the play), which pulls the rug out from under you, and sets you up for more of the same later on. Caine and Olivier here achieve something so incredible, so intensely-felt and riveting, that words fail me (for once). Caine has gone on record as saying that he was petrified by the idea of having to hold his own with Sir Laurence -- his fear must have served him admirably in this scene.
Two final notes: the most underrated aspect of this film is Mankiewicz's able, artful direction -- simply because it's also so unobtrusive. One might think, given the rich script and fine actors, all he had to do was just point the camera and shoot. Not so. Any director who can do what Mankiewicz did here is not just brilliant but a genius. Second, I would also be remiss if I didn't single out the wonderful performance of Alec Cawthorne, who takes a minor role and makes it the equal of the two leads. And those of you who know Cawthorne's other work will agree with me that this is his finest moment. (You there in the back, stop laughing.) Of course, fans of this movie will get the joke right away -- please don't spoil it for those who haven't! Cawthorne is the best surprise in Sleuth, a movie with no small store of surprises to begin with. It will fool you completely, and you will love every second of it.

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