Monday, June 29, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace
Published by: Severn House Publishers
Publication Date: June 30th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 224 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Meet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.

Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat.

Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency – one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English – Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen . . ."

Not a lot on offer this week, maybe because of the upcoming holiday weekend... but this looks interesting. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Movie Review - Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Michael C. Gwynne, William Hansen, Matt Clark, Jim Antonio, and Jill Clayburgh
Release Date: June 19th, 1974
Rating: ★
To Buy

Harry Benson is having an experimental surgery to stop his epileptic seizures that cause violent blackouts after he was in a car accident. Harry's entire life changed, from a loving family man he has become a violent criminal. The hope is that he can gain some semblance of his old life back. His psychiatrist, Doctor Janet Ross, thinks that implanting electrodes in his brain isn't the wisest idea, which is proven correct when his brain starts to trigger more and more mini seizures to get the euphoric jolt from the electrodes. The problem is, once the jolts become continuous, he will have a major blackout and will be the most dangerous he's ever been. This wouldn't be that big a problem except that Harry has escaped his police guard and left the hospital. He could be anyway and anything could happen. The first tipping point will be some minutes after three in the morning, and that's when Harry first kills. As his electric jolts become more and more constant he will have more major blackouts and more people could die, even the doctors who are trying to help him, because he knows where they all live.

If you want a pompous pretentious movie that is so full of itself that you will be laughing till you are crying, then I heartily recommend you watch The Terminal Man! This adaptation might be the most amusing of all the Crichton adaptations I have ever seen. Either the adaptation is true to the book and with Crichton's involvement we get to watch a solid movie, or the adaptation is all levels of tacky throwing in bad robotic apes with sign language gloves that disappoint while the viewer is able to still find some humor in their situation. But The Terminal Man leaves all others in the dust when it comes to overreaching. Cinema in the late sixties and early seventies was revitalized by more artistic movies that weren't meant to be mainstream. From Bonnie and Clyde to The Graduate, 2001 to A Clockwork Orange, movies were breaking with conventions and what would have previously been art house fare was now de rigueur. The Terminal Man obviously had dreams of being the next big thing with it's limited dialogue and score set in a very colorless world but instead the movie comes off as trying too hard. It wants to be chic so badly that it oversteps and we are left with a laughable mess.

The biggest hint that they are trying to make a medical thriller into an artsy film is in the sets and costumes. The sets have no color. No color at all. And literally everyone is only ever seen in white, black, or grey. There are no other colors in this world, except that hint of red. Both blood and flowers are allowed red, but nothing else. It's obviously aiming for the impact of the girl with the red coat in Schindler's List and instead it's just weird. The appearance of the red when Harry starts to kill isn't jarring, like a horrific murder should be, it was just laughable. I'm not sure if this colorless world was supposed to be a commentary on the antiseptic lifestyle that surrounds a hospital or some weird futuristic concept where colors are tacky in the future, because they did noticeably remove any reference to the year the movie was set in. The height of the fashion faux pas is the nurses uniforms, which are so impractical and their headdresses are half medieval peasant half nun that one wonders what the hell world this movie was really thinking it lived in. You can actually feel the filmmakers striving for greatness, you can hear the gears in their head moving and thinking, yes, this will be a classic for the ages like Kubrick. If Kubrick did Lifetime TV movies, then maybe the analogy would be right.

The Terminal Man just wanted to be profound, it wanted to be something more. The sparseness is also seen in the paring down of the story. There is almost no dialogue and what plot existed in the book has been almost completely gutted. Instead the film is populated with long silences and static images that in the hands of someone talented, aka Kubrick, it could have worked, but here it draws out the movie so that a film that is under two hours feels about six. The problem that arises from parring down everything is the story is lost in translation. You don't realize that Harry Benson is supposed to be a genius with a fear of machines that indicates his psychosis, instead we have a violent man who has a surgery that goes wrong and kills some people. Where is the motivation? Where is the reasoning? In the book there is a connection between Benson and Doctor Ross where they have a true friendship, where their conversations delve into deep concepts. Here their doctor patient relationship is almost nonexistent and Doctor Ross is relegated to sexist jokes and wailing while trying to futilely save her patient.

The major divergence from the book, wherein they make Harry a Roman Catholic, exemplifies how the filmmakers were striving for some inner meaning. Something lofty and enigmatic and shocking. Instead of just sticking to the solid story that existed, here Harry isn't contemplating machines taking over the world, but instead trying to come to terms with being a violent man. What? I mean, he doesn't remember these attacks and often puts himself purposefully in these situations, ie, going to bars and strip clubs, yet somehow he has remorse? Since when? His going to church to confess made me role my eyes. The film seriously thought that by adding this layer of spiritualism that they would somehow redeem it? Make it something worthy of discussion? Instead the killing of the priest with his rosary during Harry's confession comes off as laughable and oh so predictable. It isn't helped by the fact that George Segal, while a good actor in his own way, was unable to carry this production. His "seizures" are worthy of a Razzie.

But the saddest fact of this whole film is that it wants to have been a Stanley Kubrick film. With the minimal score, only Bach's Goldberg Variation No. 25 played by Glenn Gould is ever heard, the colorless sets, the framing of each scene, the doctors in evening wear, the weird eye through the door watching over us, all of it cries out as a poor Kubrick imitation. Personally, I have never been the biggest Kubrick fan, but watching someone trying to emulate him so hard it is painful to watch you realize how great Kubrick is. This, this was like the bad Lifetime tv movie that was made as a Kubrick film. Much like the true stories of Saved by the Bell and Full House, The Terminal Man comes off as cut rate, cliched, badly cast, lacking vision, and unable to grasp even the basics of what they are trying to do. By the end of the film when George Segal is having a seizure in a cemetery plot, well, you're just praying for that bullet to end it all. It was amusing to watch the film once because of how bad it is, but a second viewing would be masochistic. Go watch something by Kubrick instead, it's the real deal, not a pale over ambitious imitation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: April 12th, 1972
Format: Paperback, 266 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Harry Benson blacks out. When he loses time he commits violent acts. This has been happening ever since he was in a car accident where he retained brain damage. The Neuro-Psychiatric Service of the University Hospital has been looking for a "stage three" candidate to try a new procedure on. They believe that actual psychical brain injuries can be cured with the implantation of electrodes in the brain. The electrodes would fire a positive charge into the patient's brain whenever an "attack" was imminent. This would be perfect for Harry. Whenever an attack started, instead of blacking out, he would get a happy little pleasurable charge and everything would be fine. He'd no longer be beating up exotic dancers and gas station attendants. The only thing the NPS didn't count on when choosing Harry as a candidate is that he is actually psychotic. Doctor Janet Ross warned them that this was the case, but the surgeons in their zeal to do what has never been done brushed aside her concerns about Harry's fear of machines and went ahead with the surgery. The day after the surgery it appears that Doctor Ross's fears have materialized as Harry is triggering seizures to get pleasurable responses. He then escapes the hospital and it is only a matter of time until he reaches his breaking point. If he was dangerous before he is even more dangerous now.

Despite deciding on a whim that I would read the books for my Crichton Celebration in reverse order I have to say it's a decision that I don't regret in the least. As I read this, my last book for my celebration, and the second book Crichton published under his own name, it's fascinating to see the genesis of what he'll later explore in future books. The Terminal Man is by no means a polished book, it's very rough around the edges, and I almost like it more for this. Crichton hasn't established any pattern to his narrative structure and this gives the book a freshness. But we get hints as to his future greatness and his future themes, from man competing with technology to apes to genetic modification. Crichton had a very interesting range of subjects he was compelled to write about and seeing them in a protoformat makes the book nerd in me smile. Of course he does fall prey to some cliche ridden techniques that he would thankfully remove from his repertoire later on, the most egregious error being the abrupt ending that he would use again in Eaters of the Dead in some attempt to be edgy, but it's just lame.  

What I find interesting to mull over is the idea of the medical drama or medical thriller. While there have been innumerable shows and books and movies, so much so that we know the language and the argot, Crichton would be at the forefront of this movement. He refined and for many defined what a medical procedural should be with ER. Twenty years after writing The Terminal Man he was still interested enough in medicine to bring it to television. He was always working and playing with ideas for years and years until he found the perfect outlet, be it book or film or television. He was able to explore themes in a way that was almost always fresh and most definitely an expansion of his previous thoughts. What I wouldn't give to have him still in the world and examining how things have changed and how much he predicted and how some things were tried and abandoned. He must have been an interesting person to talk to and how I wish I had had that chance.  

Though with this prevalence of medical shows over time I think I have become desensitized to blood and guts. I can sit and watch Hannibal eating Eddie Izzard's leg and think nothing of it aside from the wonderful ability of Eddie to deliver a wry line. Adaptations of some of the bloodiest murder scenes, such as those of Jack the Ripper, nary an eyelash is batted. Yet reading about the brain surgery of Harry Benson I had this odd visceral reaction. Perhaps it's because I'm used to visual stimulus and this was written and therefore my mind's eye was left to imagine the worse, but the impact this simple surgery had on me was remarkable. It had such force my gorge was actually rising as I thought of the brain being cut into. Also, the fact that the brain has no nerve endings and that you can hack away without the patient feeling any pain, ugh, no. I don't know what it was about this but it struck a literal nerve in me and made me connect to Benson on a level I never thought I would.

Another medical aspect that struck me was the doctor patient confidentiality between Harry Benson and all his doctors, in particular Doctor Janet Ross. In other words, they didn't seem to care about it or even mention it once. Yes, once Harry goes on his little rampage every sane doctor would give the police everything they needed to catch him, but shouldn't there be at least a nod of acknowledgement that Harry is a danger and that is why the confidentiality is being breached? When Captain Anders comes to Doctor Ross's apartment after Harry tried to kill her she calmly sits down and tells him everything about Harry not leaving out a single detail. Would this fly in court? Can she really tell him everything? It not only seems like a breech of trust, but as if she's being vindictive against her patient. She keeps saying that she wants to help him, yet she's laying all his secrets bare and that seems like a negative response to almost being killed more then a helping hand.

But maybe in the early seventies people didn't dwell on potential litigation. Ethics and standards have changed drastically in the past forty some years. And, as the book is written to point out, technology is changing rapidly too. One of the aspects of the book that I found disturbing was the fact that research on monkeys wasn't in the least bit controversial. Ellis mentioned hundreds, yes, HUNDREDS of monkeys he'd worked on to prepare for this one procedure in a human. Also, the monkeys apparently cost $80! Not only the cruelty to the animals but that such a low sum could be placed on their lives disgusted me. Which if extrapolated outwards, you can relate to Harry's predicament and how the surgery being preformed on him both disgusts and horrifies him. Morals, standards, ethics, all is in flux constantly within ourselves and within society. There is a palpable fear of technology that is logical. But there is also a fear of what we have been and what we could be capable of. It's not even the technological advances and the fact that a computer knows what a cat is that's the real danger, it's the human element that is unpredictable and terrifying.

And isn't that always the way? The human element is where things break down. This idea that we can control humans, that we can program them, drug them, retrain them, it is always in playing god in this sense that things go awry. Yes the technology is terrifying, but the fact that humans then try to use it, try to play god, that's what really scares me. Despite the fact that Harry is quite literally insane, I truly felt sorry for him reading this at this time in my life. These doctors that were there to help him were really, despite them objecting that the press was sensationalizing it, preforming mind control. Because changing someone's behavior, be it as simple as them biting their nails, is mind control at a basic level. Look to all the drugs prescribed for anxiety and stress; I'm on a few myself. These drugs don't magically solve anything, they are their to rewrite your behavior and get you to stop anxiety in it's tracks. If I get over emotional I feel the drugs kicking in and it feels like a band around my head which won't go away unless I calm down. This pressure has taught me to calm down. I have been reprogrammed in the simplest way, with negative reinforcement. Now imagine having wires in your brain doing that? I shudder to think. Having them in the mind of someone actually psychotic? That is why The Terminal Man is both terrifying and a cautionary tale.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: June 23rd, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The fourth novel in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s internationally bestselling “Long Earth” series, hailed as “a brilliant science fiction collaboration . . . a love letter to all Pratchett fans, readers, and lovers of wonder everywhere”

2045-2059. Human society continues to evolve on Datum Earth, its battered and weary origin planet, as the spread of humanity progresses throughout the many Earths beyond.

Lobsang, now an elderly and complex AI, suffers a breakdown, and disguised as a human attempts to live a “normal” life on one of the millions of Long Earth worlds. His old friend, Joshua, now in his fifties, searches for his father and discovers a heretofore unknown family history. And the super-intelligent post-humans known as “the Next” continue to adapt to life among “lesser” humans.

But an alarming new challenge looms. An alien planet has somehow become “entangled” with one of the Long Earth worlds and, as Lobsang and Joshua learn, its voracious denizens intend to capture, conquer, and colonize the new universe—the Long Earth—they have inadvertently discovered.

World-building, the intersection of universes, the coexistence of diverse species, and the cosmic meaning of the Long Earth itself are among the mind-expanding themes explored in this exciting new installment of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's extraordinary Long Earth series."

While I'm still bereft from the death of Terry Pratchett, I hope that Stephen Baxter gets to carry on with this wonderful series in his name.

Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow
Published by: Orbit
Publication Date: June 23rd, 2015
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"New York Times bestselling author Lilith Saintcrow returns to dark fantasy with a new series where the faery world inhabits diners, dive bars and trailer parks.

Jeremiah Gallow is just another construction worker, and that's the way he likes it. He's left his past behind, but some things cannot be erased. Like the tattoos on his arms that transform into a weapon, or that he was once closer to the Queen of Summer than any half-human should be. Now the half-sidhe all in Summer once feared is dragged back into the world of enchantment, danger, and fickle fae - by a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife. Her name is Robin, and her secrets are more than enough to get them both killed. A plague has come, the fullborn-fae are dying, and the dark answer to Summer's Court is breaking loose.

Be afraid, for Unwinter is riding..."

While this does sound really fascinating, the sword messing with the kerning on the cover is really really really annoying me. 

Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams
Published by: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication Date: June 23rd, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the summer of 1966, Christina Hardcastle—“Tiny” to her illustrious family—stands on the brink of a breathtaking future. Of the three Schuyler sisters, she’s the one raised to marry a man destined for leadership, and with her elegance and impeccable style, she presents a perfect camera-ready image in the dawning age of television politics. Together she and her husband, Frank, make the ultimate power couple: intelligent, rich, and impossibly attractive. It seems nothing can stop Frank from rising to national office, and he’s got his sights set on a senate seat in November.

But as the season gets underway at the family estate on Cape Cod, three unwelcome visitors appear in Tiny’s perfect life: her volatile sister Pepper, an envelope containing incriminating photograph, and the intimidating figure of Frank’s cousin Vietnam-war hero Caspian, who knows more about Tiny’s rich inner life than anyone else. As she struggles to maintain the glossy façade on which the Hardcastle family’s ambitions are built, Tiny begins to suspect that Frank is hiding a reckless entanglement of his own…one that may unravel both her own ordered life and her husband’s promising career."

New Beatriz Williams, how can I say no?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Anthony Head (Colonel William Reid)

Colonel William Reid. AKA, a hard man to pin down. He's such a vibrant and amazing character but I kept getting caught up on the fact he was a ginger instead of trying to cast to the character as Lauren had written him. That's when Anthony Stewart Head popped into mine.

Name: Anthony Head

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Colonel William Reid

First Impression: Do you remember those old Taster's Choice commercials? I'm sure you do. Though I personally have no recollection of Trevor Eve being in them, it is what I remember Anthony Head from. In fact I remember going to a Doctor Who convention back in the 90s when Buffy had just started and I saw that Anthony Head, aka, the guy from the Taster's Choice commercials was there. I wanted to see him, my friend I was with declined. We made it up to him years later when we went to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention in the Catskills.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Forget for a moment that he's not a ginger. The reason I think Anthony Head would be perfect is that, aside from being an amazingly talented actor, he has this ability to light up a room when he smiles. There's an infectious mirth that I think is inherent in the character of William Reid that is also part of who Tony is. There's also a bit of a rogue in him. He can also be scary and commanding when needed. Oh, and he looks fabulous on a horse. Is that enough?

Lasting Impression: While technically it is probably the Taster's Choice commercial, I didn't remember his name or anything from that, so I'm counting the lasting impression as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Rupert Giles he made librarians sexy. He also showed an amazing range from action and adventure, to comedy, to scary dark depths, his name was Ripper! Now I want to go watch all of Buffy again. Dammit. I knew choosing him as William was a trap somehow. OK, queue up all seven seasons, let's get this started.

What else you've seen them in: That picture of the two of us on my wall? No, that's only for me, let's get to you all. Um, everything awesome? He's played the aging playboy in Manchild and The Invisibles, the sexy Prime Minister on Little Britain. The sophisticated aristocrat in a world about to go to war in Dancing on the Edge. He's played evil fantasy fathers in Merlin and Galavant, with singing! He's shown his comedic chops and his ability to navigate dating a younger woman on the fabulous You, Me and Them. He showed his more shallow side as a certain Regency father in Persuasion, and his sexy evil side on Warehouse 13, seen above, go Paracelsus, kill them all, um, I didn't mean to say that out loud. And of course, he was on Doctor Who. It's not like I've watched everything he's ever been in... I'm sure I've missed one or two. Maybe.

Can't believe it's them: Love in a Cold Climate! Seriously! This is awesome! Look at little Tony Head as another Tony, Tony Kroesig, Linda Radlett's husband! Thankfully this has been reissued on DVD so that you and sqwee with me every time he comes on screen.

Wish they hadn't: Left Buffy to be in Manchild? And no, not a joke. Manchild is ok and all, it's just not Buffy. I mean, it's awesome how they had him leave and then come back, both at the end of Season 6 and then in Season 7, but I missed my Giles! Also I totally still want the Ripper movie, I don't care of the comics have covered it, I still want it.

Bio: Anthony Stewart Head, he had to use the Stewart stateside because there was already another Anthony Head over here, was born into a family that prized the arts. He grew up in Hampton and attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Tony's father was a documentary filmmaker, his mother is an actress, his brother is a famous musical theater star, and his long term partner, Sarah Fisher, was a theatre administrator, while their two daughters are actresses as well, Emily even played his daughter on The Invisibles. Like his brother he has a love for singing and has released some music both with a band and solo, where he even wrote some of the songs, as well as starring in musicals. He also has a love of horse riding and his house in Somerset with his horses was featured in season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Head is one of those rare actors who is popular on both sides of the ocean and knows who his fans are and continues to make great shows within the sci-fi community but also expands his repertoire with period pieces. He has been acting as long as I have been alive and I hope to see him popping up in shows for years and years to come. I especially loved his random appearance in Galavant recently, such an awesome surprise. He's my William any day!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Rachael Stirling (Gwendolyn Meadows)

Ok, ok, so yes, I have used Rachael Stirling before in a Lauren Willig "Dream Casting" but she's such a good actress can you blame me for using her more then once? Also, seriously, I think she'd be the ultimate Miss Gwen!

Name: Rachael Stirling

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Gwendolyn Meadows

First Impression: Tipping the Velvet... kind of hard to forget the scene with all the "John's" or the scene with the leather, you know... I'm not going to type it out, but it lead to her being fired by Caroline Bingley... mainly cause Caroline wasn't on the receiving end... overall a lackluster production despite being written by Andrew Davies... and who knew Caroline Bingley was so into women? Well the writers of Lost in Austen for one.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: I have spent much thought on Miss Gwen because she has such a distinct personality. Rachael works because she has the decorum needed but also has a biting comeback on the tip of her tongue that could easily scare the young rogues of the ton, if they were able to avoid her parasol that is.

Lasting Impression: Marple, "Murder at the Vicarage." The first episode of the new Marple and Rachael was perfect. I also want her wardrobe. No seriously. I NEED her wardrobe.

What else you've seen them in: From mysteries like Poirot, Miss Marple and The Bletchley Circle, to more gender bending roles in Lewis, Tipping the Velvet and the comedy Boy Meets Girl. As well as more big budget movies, like Snow White and the Huntsman and Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and Julian Fellowes' The Young Victoria. Rachael is always wonderful and always willing to walk the line of male and female, with her feminine features and her husky voice, it also shows she has an adeptness to the "breeches" roles Miss Gwen loves to employ... She could take on any role and anyone and be victorious.

Can't believe it's them: She was in the horrid Maybe Baby, which I'm sure everyone involved from Hugh Laurie to Emma Thompson wishes would just disappear off their resumes. Seriously, there's a scene with a moped that won't leave my mind. Literally I saw this movie once, and it won't leave!

Wish they hadn't: I'm actually going to move beyond my hatred of Maybe Baby this time around and go with Women in Love. I still can't believe how much they messed it up. Ugh, the scene with Joseph Mawle and Rory Kinnear wrestling in the sand? Burn out my eyes please!

Bio: Think she looks familiar? Could it be because her mother is none other than Diana Rigg? Why didn't they just get her for The Avengers... Uma Thurman my ass. If her mother as The Queen of Thorns is anything to go by, you can only imagine the wroth and the cracking put-downs that Rachael will be able to channel as Miss Gwen. As for the two of them ever acting together? Check out the Doctor Who episode "The Crimson Horror." It's Victorian campy Whovian fun! Plus, it shows the vulnerability that Rachael is capable of and which is needed for the softer side of Gwen. I know! Who knew there was one?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review - The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery
Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, Robert Lang, Michael Elphick, Wayne Sleep, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd, George Downing, and James Cossins
Release Date: February 2nd, 1979
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Edward Pierce is planning to steal the Crimean Gold shipment. Despite the need of finding and duplicating four keys to get into the two Chubb safes on the London to Folkestone train, the true challenge is that no one has ever stolen anything from a moving train. With the help of his old friend and screwsman Agar and his lady Miriam, they slowly acquire the knowledge of the keys locations and plan on how to copy them. Pierce is willing to go to any length; be it pimping out Miriam, seducing spinsters, betting on dogs in ratting matches, breaking men out of Newgate prison, dead cats, house breaking, and murder, nothing will stop Pierce succeeding in his quest for the gold. Whatever obstacle that is thrown in his path he will find some way to circumvent or eliminate it. The Police themselves couldn't stop this even if they tried, and they have tried; because as Pierce said at his trial, "I wanted the money."

Because of the success of Jurassic Park in the early nineties, most of the adaptations of Crichton's books occurred after that milestone. Crichton's back catalog was rife for the plundering in the hopes of finding the next big hit. The sad fact is Jurassic Park was a bit of an anomaly, with the quality of the adaptations and their box office revenue steeply declining. Every one of the adaptations was trying to emulate the success of Jurassic Park and this often led to absurd additions and bad robotic apes. The adaptations rarely stayed true to the books which made my discovery of The Great Train Robbery that much more exciting. I would in fact go so far as to say of all the Crichton adaptations this captures the book it's based on best while translating it to another medium. This should be of little surprise because Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed it as well, but sometimes it is amazing how blind authors are to creating the best movie versus slavishly sticking to their book. But beyond all that, The Great Train Robbery doesn't feel as if it was made to be a blockbuster, it was made to be a great film and because quality was chosen over kitsch it stands up over time.

What I love about The Great Train Robbery is that an American writer was somehow able to make a quintessentially British Film. Yes, a great deal has to do with the casting, but it goes beyond that. The pace, the sets, the dialogue, the very fiber of the film exudes England. Perhaps this is why the movie works? I've never really thought about this, but the majority of Crichton's films are so American in their way, in other words, out to get the big bucks. The truth is that America doesn't hold the exclusive rights to making movies, despite how much Hollywood might control the global marketplace. Some of the best films, the films of truly high quality, come from outside the system. Now, I wouldn't quality this film as art house cinema, because it doesn't have that feel. But does anyone else find it weird that in this day and age art house cinema is coming to mean more and more a quality film versus something with superheroes? So, if we go by that definition, yes, it is art house. It's unabashedly British with true quality and with a quirky vibe reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and I loved every minute of it.

There is a truth universal to my life and that is British films of the 60s and 70s are a comfort to me. Being raised in the 80s I spent my Sundays with my grandparents watching British television shows and movies from the previous decades on PBS. My parents raised me on movies like The Wrong Box and instilled in me a love of Upstairs, Downstairs. All these shows had a distinct look, a way that they denoted the Victorian time period, with bright colors and garish wallpaper patterns. Just from set design you can pick out a British film of this time period with relative ease. In fact, when did we decide, as a collective whole, that the Victorian period was more sedate? Did the love of pastels in the eighties make us forget that just maybe the seventies color schemes were right and that maybe, just maybe, movies like The Great Train Robbery depicted this bygone age better? Whatever the cause for the change, when I see these colors on screen I'm a little kid again sitting around working on puzzles of Victorian Dollhouses and all is right in the world. It's like a happy pill or a sedative, just start playing the fun music and look at the wallpaper and contentedly sigh.

The one thing that Crichton did do in his adaptation is that instead of doing a serious heist he went for more the comedy/farce angle and I think this really pays off. There's an infectious joy that permeates the film which is completely captured in Sean Connery's roguish grins. This movie shares a spirit animal with The Wrong Box and has the madcap zaniness that is the hallmark of the best British films of this time period. The only thing I do question though is sometimes Crichton's overt us of sexual innuendos falls horrendously flat. The young Mrs. Trent flirting with Connery as Pierce works to an extent because her character is obviously a woman of the world trapped in a loveless marriage. But it's the subtler "bolts" and "screws" while talking about the faux ruin that works, when erections come into it, that's a shade too far. I like that the film doesn't desexualize Victorians as has happened over time, but talk of the train heist arousing Connery more then his paramour... a shade too far.

Though the truth is everything in this films comes down to Sean Connery. And in particular Sean Connery on that train. More and more films don't allow their stars to do stunts. Usually its insurance related. But the sad fact is that this takes something away from the film. Whether it's the bad body double in a loose wig or just a shot where you can obviously see it's not the actor, something is lost. Films are stories that rely on a suspension of disbelief on our part and gaffs with stuntmen and women take us out of the story. Even recently watching the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd I was distracted whenever the camera zoomed out to show Bathsheba riding her horse along the clifftops. It was clearly not Carey Mulligan. And this little slice of reality came in and took away some of the magic of the film. Let's then look to the awesomeness of Sean Connery. The character of Pierce, for obvious dramatic reasons versus the more practical reason of a lock on the outside of the guard van, has to go along the top of a moving train. Connery did this. Sean Connery ran along the top of a moving train! It doesn't get more badass then that! Come for the comedy, stay for Sean Connery proving that even if his name isn't Bond anymore, he's still just as badass as Bond.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Published by: Dell
Publication Date: May, 1975
Format: Paperback, 266 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Edward Pierce plans to steal the Crimean Gold shipment. This won't be an easy heist. Firstly, he plans to steal the gold from a moving train. Secondly the gold is in two Chubb safes requiring two keys each, for a total of four keys needed. Thirdly, he doesn't know where the four keys are located. Finally, he is willing to take his time to get it right, meaning it's more then a year till he will see the gold and there is a lot of outlay of cash in the meantime to get the right people for the job and to keep them in silent ignorance. With his screwsman Agar ready to copy the keys they set about finding their marks. Two of the keys are held in the railway office, which will be a problem in itself, and the other two are held by men who work for the bank and these are their marks. Even if they succeed in getting all the keys copied and getting them all to work, a year is a long time and changes might happen to the accepted routine of the gold shipment. There could be simple changes to the timetable, or there could be massive changes, like the safes being overhauled. And even if they get away with it, whose to say they won't be eventually caught? This is an audacious scheme that could go down in history, one way or another.

If, prior to reading this book again, you were to ask me what are my top Crichton books I would have replied without hesitation, Congo, Sphere, and The Great Train Robbery. These I have gone back to again and again over the years. The Great Train Robbery easily solidified my obsession with Victorian England and set me on the path to a historical fiction addiction that has never let up. I remember it as an action packed thrill ride with just the right amount of historical context. This is not a phrase I would use anymore. The book hasn't changed in these intervening years, but I have. My reading tastes have expanded and been refined and what was once a thrilling read came across as disjointed and almost laborious. The best example I have by way of comparison is when I re-read all of Jane Austen's books. I had a very distinct hierarchy that was blown to bits when I picked them up again. Northanger Abbey surged from last place to be near the top, whereas Mansfield Park declined. But there was no more precipitous a decline then Emma. Ranking in the top three Emma became my most hated of all Austen, her behavior, while amusing and laudable to a teenager, annoyed the heck out me the more "grown up" me. The Great Train Robbery is the Emma of Crichton; oh how far it has fallen.

When I was younger I was very gullible when it came to books, which is very odd when you realize what a skeptic I am in regard to everything else. But if a book said it was "true" I believed it. Therefore when William Goldman said that his book, The Princess Bride, was an abridgement of the book of the same title by S. Morgenstern I believed it. In fact I spent probably a good few years annoying people in my belief and my desire to get a hold of the "real" book as I saw it. Yes, this might be naive, but what can I say, I was a teenager without the vast resources of the Internet. Therefore it was a logical conclusion that I assumed The Great Train Robbery with Crichton's desire to always make his books "real" actually happened. I was totally flummoxed that the only "Great Train Robbery" happened in 1963. I was convinced this couldn't be right. Thankfully I have been redeemed a bit in this belief by finding out that there was the "Great Gold Robbery" that Crichton based his book on, so I was partially right. Why I felt the need to have this truth I don't know, but it made the book something more to me.

The facts and figures that are sprinkled throughout the book lend veracity to it. When I first read The Great Train Robbery it was my first book that presented history in an approachable manner. I learned more truths then most textbooks print, and that might be why I so wanted the heist to be real; the glamor of a story provides a more interesting world any day. But re-reading it all these facts and figures actually don't lend themselves to the narrative. They might have educated me at one time by now all they do is interrupt the narrative flow. As for the narrative itself? Well, there isn't that much story, which the facts and figures do a good job of disguising. Also, what I found very aggravating this time around was that so much of the "history" and the "commentary" went beyond the timeline of the heist, aka 1854-1857. The book references events, periodicals, and statistics so far in the future, some more then a hundred years in the future, that it lacks the feeling of "now" and makes it more academic. Crichton has always had a problem balancing narrative with an overabundance of facts. In the middle of his career he seemed to find a happy medium, but at the beginning and again at the end of his career he let the research overpower the narrative and us readers are left feeling bored waiting for the story to resume.

What I found most annoying though was Crichton's desire to use the argot of the time. But instead of lending character and flavor to the book he seems to be using it to purposefully obfuscate the story. The language at times gets so bad that characters don't understand each other and what they say has to be translated. Say what? If your own characters don't understand each other then how does the story work exactly? How am I to understand what they are saying? Everything needs to be explained and this makes the narrative, what there is in between the plethora of facts, even more clunky. The only reason I can think for Crichton to do this was that the historian in him took over. He had all this vast research of facts and figures that he kept throwing into the heist narrative he obviously must have had reams of research as to the argot of the criminals living in The Holy Land. So instead of dumbing the book down to make it palatable, ie legible, he made the language 100% realistic and decided that either he would explain it or just leave his readers muddled. As someone who reads a lot of books with slang and argot, I have to say he really let the ball drop on this one. It doesn't work, and hence The Great Train Robbery's swift decline in my definitive ranking of his books.

But there's also a part of me that wonders, was the book Crichton's end goal for this story? He was already doing films at this time. In 1973, two years before this book came out, he wrote and directed Westworld. The rights to The Great Train Robbery were bought right when the book came out. Within three years the movie was already in pre-production with Sean Connery attached. Crichton would eventually direct it and it would be released in 1979. If you look at the book not as a book but as a treatment for a film it makes far more sense. The narrative, minus all the extraneous historical details, is a quick, fast, and fun heist. But in order to translate it from page to screen you would need to know all these extraneous historical details in order to capture the time period just right. Yes, the details lend reality to the book, but as they are presented in the book they don't work. If Crichton had wanted to write the best book he could there would have been more integration, more cohesion. BUT if he was looking towards another medium as the end goal? Why bother? Just lay the facts out, have the narrative interspersed, and wait for the time for the film to be made. This theory makes sense of the book in my mind. It also makes me very excited to watch the movie again to see if this theory of mine holds up...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Night World by Mordicai Gerstein
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 16th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 40 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Everyone in the house is sleeping, but outside, the night world is wide-awake.

It's a wonderful night to explore!

Perfect for bedtime, this book from Caldecott Medalist Mordicai Gerstein celebrates the secrets of the night world and the joys of the sunrise."

Seriously, Mordicai Gerstein is one of the reason I read. The Elizabeth Levy books he illustrated made up my childhood, not to even mention Arnold of the Ducks. Adore him!

Between the Notes by Sharon Huss Roat
Published by: HarperTeen
Publication Date: June 16th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"After Ivy is forced to move to "the wrong side of the tracks" due to economic hard times, she discovers that not everything—or everyone—is what they seem, even herself. Fans of Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen will love this funny, poignant, and relatable story.

When Ivy Emerson's family loses their house—complete with her beloved piano—the fear of what's to come seizes her like a bad case of stage fright. Forced to give up her allowance, her cell phone, and the window seat in her lilac-colored bedroom, Ivy moves with her family from her affluent neighborhood to Lakeside, aka "the wrong side of the tracks." Hiding the truth from her friends—and the cute new guy in school, who may have secrets of his own—seems like a good idea at first. But when the bad-boy-next door threatens to ruin everything, Ivy's carefully crafted lies begin to unravel . . . and there is no way to stop them.

Once things get to the breaking point, Ivy turns to her music, some surprising new friends, and the trusting heart of her disabled little brother. And she may be surprised that not everyone is who she thought they were . . . including herself."

OK, so this is apparently visual day, because seriously, the plot of this book sounds OK, but look at that cover. Dang! It's awesome.

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
Published by: Doubleday
Publication Date: June 16th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Kevin Kwan, bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians, is back with a wickedly funny new novel of social climbing, secret e-mails, art-world scandal, lovesick billionaires, and the outrageous story of what happens when Rachel Chu, engaged to marry Asia's most eligible bachelor, discovers her birthfather.

On the eve of her wedding to Nicholas Young, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Asia, Rachel should be over the moon. She has a flawless Asscher-cut diamond from JAR, a wedding dress she loves more than anything found in the salons of Paris, and a fiancé willing to sacrifice his entire inheritance in order to marry her. But Rachel still mourns the fact that her birthfather, a man she never knew, won't be able to walk her down the aisle. Until: a shocking revelation draws Rachel into a world of Shanghai splendor beyond anything she has ever imagined. Here we meet Carlton, a Ferrari-crashing bad boy known for Prince Harry-like antics; Colette, a celebrity girlfriend chased by fevered paparazzi; and the man Rachel has spent her entire life waiting to meet: her father. Meanwhile, Singapore's It Girl, Astrid Leong, is shocked to discover that there is a downside to having a newly minted tech billionaire husband. A romp through Asia's most exclusive clubs, auction houses, and estates, China Rich Girlfriend brings us into the elite circles of Mainland China, introducing a captivating cast of characters, and offering an inside glimpse at what it's like to be gloriously, crazily, China-rich."

Kevin Kwan's book Crazy Rich Asians made it into my book club random draw a few months back. It didn't get picked but it sure looks good, so here's another of his books that I'm now interesting in reading. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Movie Review - The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior
Based on the book Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Vladimir Kulich, Dennis Storhøi, Omar Sharif, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Tony Curran, Eric Avari, Sven Wollter, Asbjorn Riis, and Maria Bonnevie
Release Date: August 27th, 1999
Rating: ★
To Buy

Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a successful court poet in Baghdad. But his poetic sensibilities lead him to love unwisely and he is banished far to the north to act as an ambassador to those tribes of Barbarians. The arrival of Vikings save Ahmad ibn Fadlan and his party great distress from Turkic Raiders. The Northmen are celebrating the death of their chieftain and the ascension of their new leader, Buliwyf. A young emissary arrives to ask Buliwyf if he will come to his father's kingdom and save them from an evil which cannot be named. The Viking's wisewoman comes to throw the bones and tells Buliwfy that the thirteenth warrior must not be a Norseman, and so Ahmad, called Ibn by his new travelling companions, unwillingly heads out to do battle with an evil he doesn't know with warriors who don't even speak his language. When they arrive at King Hrothgar's village the warriors see that the situation is more dire then they feared. The town is almost indefensible, and the mist is coming, and with that, the danger of the Wendol.

It makes sense that the oddest book in Crichton's oeuvre would make the oddest film. But still, I question this adaptation's purpose because whatever the book's failings there was at least a glimmer of something interesting, a little Viking culture, a little mystery in the mist, which has been entirely stripped away to be nothing more then over ninety minutes of battle. There is so little plot that I wouldn't even deign to call it a plot, something other critics and moviegoers apparently agreed with as the movie quickly flopped at the box office. The movie should have just been called "Buliwyf Does Battle." At least re-naming the story for release as The 13th Warrior versus Eaters of the Dead helped to highlight this lack of depth. The simple truth about this film is I struggled with it. This is a nothing film. Watching the movie I kept thinking to myself, how can I even write a review about a movie that is so lacking of anything that it is slipping out or my mind as unforgettable as I'm viewing it? This is just a bad movie, plain and simple, and this is after extensive re-shoots. The curious side of me wonders how bad the film was before the re-shoots. The fact that Crichton had to swoop in to try to save it makes me contemplative. If Crichton didn't step into the breech for the laugh riot that Congo became and the horror show The Lost World turned into, just exactly how horrible was this movie?

Even in this "polished" and "fixed" format it's a weird movie. Antonio Banderas is nothing so much as comic relief and nowhere approaching a romantic hero. Also, the film doesn't feel of it's time. Now I'm not talking about the tenth century when it's supposed to take place, I'm talking about the turn of the last century. This doesn't feel like a film from 1999, it feels like a film from the mid 80s. In fact it feels as if this film is the kindred spirit to Ladyhawke and Masters of the Universe with a little Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thrown in for the Wendol. Because the Wendol sure as hell don't look like they belong in Scandinavia! India, maybe. If that India came out of the fevered dreams of Lucas and Spielberg. If only we could get this Jerry Goldsmith score, which is laughably bad and uneven, replaced with a score by Tangerine Dream, a la Legend, I think, aside from Antonio Banderas being on screen, no one watching it would think it was made later then 1987. Just look to that 80s hair band appearance of all the vikings, and I think my point has been made.

In a film of weird and awkward scenes strung together with no regard to plot or pace there is one scene that sticks out. I really can't tell if it was really cool or really lame. In the beginning of the film it's a big deal that Ibn can't speak the language and therefore needs not one by two translators. This not only makes the movie hard to get into, but with Omar Sharif re-telling the events happening in the film I felt as if I was watching this documentary I saw years ago on the IMAX about the Nile that he narrated. But these clunky opening scenes are nothing to the scene where Ibn "learns" the language of the Northmen. Over the course of what we presume is many weeks we just see Ibn staring at the mouths of the Vikings around the fire. The first time it is all gibberish, but slowly, through rain and snow, words are decipherable until finally he understands everything they say, being able to then speak to them and also scaring them with the rapidity of his learning. While I like that it had a realism with him slowly learning, like everything in this film, it was handled in such a cheesy and heavy-handed manner that I'm not sure if I liked it or if it was groan worthy. I tend to lean toward groan worthy, just because of the rest of the movie.

The depiction of the Wendol was also just odd. As previously mentioned, they obviously are inspired by the evil death cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, what with their sartorial choices as well as taking off their victims heads and gnawing on their bodies. This is also where the movie diverged most radically from the book. The book clearly proposed the theory that the Wendol where really Neanderthals. There is nothing Neanderthal here, as Ibn screams "they are just men!" All their danger lies in the trappings of their appearance, not in their mysticism. The bone shirts and the bear headdresses are the signifiers that these people are evil and mean business. I'm sorry, but no. Looking a little different and killing people isn't enough for what is supposed to be the epicness of Beowulf! Plus, the Vikings kill each other all the time for dominance, land, and fun, so how are the Wendol different? The only real atrocity these people have committed, as far as I've seen, is that they must singlehandedly be responsible for Scandinavia having a depleted bear population because each and every one of their thousands of warriors has a bear headdress. Crimes against nature, yes, crimes against man, debatable.  

But the worst part of this movie I think falls into the category of racial insensitivity. Ibn is from Baghdad, in Iraq; Antonio Banderas is from Málaga, in Spain. These countries aren't interchangeable. Just because Antonio isn't white doesn't mean he's middle eastern! Besides the atrocities of an obvious spray tan and so much guyliner that it's laughable, his accent is in no way correct. In fact, more then once I noticed that if Ibn said "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die" it would seem logical. Because he is THAT Spanish. His accent is so Spanish it's stereotypical Spanish. It is obvious that Antonio Banderas did nothing to help the box office of this film so why not just hire an Iraqi actor? But time and again this happens in Hollywood. Don't they get it that here's a chance to do something right and then they go and do something wrong, like Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily! Seriously folks! The reason this pisses me off even more is that Michael Crichton knows better. He has DONE BETTER! Look to Rising Sun! Instead of hiring anyone who looked Asian for the Japanese roles, the movie used all Japanese actors! I know, it's a novel idea, but there it is.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Easters of the Dead

Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: March, 1976
Format: Paperback, 181 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Ibn Fadlan has left Bagdad, City of Peace, as an ambassador to the King of Saqaliba who is interested in adapting the Muslim faith. Traveling up the Volga he and his party encounter many strange and unfamiliar people. Ibn meets a group of vikings who are encamped along the river awaiting the death of their chieftain. Ibn befriends the heir apparent, Buliwyf, which is awkward when another heir tries to assume the mantle of chieftain. Before the matter can be resolved a messenger arrives begging Buliwyf's help. The great King Rothgar is being besieged by monsters that come out of the mist and is in need of a great hero. Buliwyf is that hero. For this epic journey and the battle to come they need thirteen warriors to make up their company, and it is propitious that the thirteenth is a stranger, so they take Ibn with them, much against his will. While Ibn didn't count on this journey, he recounts the vulgar but heroic viking race he is stuck with for posterity. If they live he will have a story to tell about a brave race brought to their knees by mist; but first they must survive.

Of all Crichton's books Eaters of the Dead holds the unique distinction of the book I care least for. It creates neither love nor loathing in me. Eaters of the Dead is just there. A short book about vikings that I couldn't care less about. Yes, the cover of my edition does amuse me, because it has that distinction of being so very late eighties. Is the viking on a Tron esque battlefield? Is the viking trapped in a video game matrix? The skulls on sticks could almost double as palm trees. Other then that, I have rarely given this book a second thought. In fact when the book was being adapted into a movie, unlike every other Crichton adaptation, I didn't even bother to see it. In fact, as I write this, I haven't seen it to this day. Would I say this book was a misstep for Crichton? Not really. I think he needed to do it as an experiment to get it out of his system. He needed to show that he could write something different, even if I didn't care for that different. And this is very different, being first person, being all in the past, and apparently being the settlement of some argument he was having with one of his friends.

The apparent history of why Crichton felt a need to write Eaters of the Dead was that one of his friends labelled Beowulf as being boring. Crichton disagreed. To win this argument Crichton wrote a boring retelling of Beowulf. So I think his friend won the argument. I'm not saying Beowulf is boring, I'm saying that Crichton's attempts to prove that it is a riveting story resulted in a snore worthy book. One of the problems is Crichton is unable to move past his modern mindset. He has always been at the forefront of technology and research, with his books often predicting trends; and while writing about something that happened in the tenth century A.D. he couldn't help but anachronistically slip a few things in, mainly man's similarity to apes, otherwise called "research for Congo is seeping into this story." But the worst was a bizarre post narrative meditation on what exactly the "mist monsters" were. The "Grendel" or "Wendol" here isn't some mythic monster but some Neanderthals that have survived with concurrent evolution. Say what!?! REALLY!?! Um no. Beowulf is a myth and epic story that isn't mean to be explained by evolution. Crichton needed to think about what it looked like to people of the time NOT people of our time. This takes us out of the moment and changes how you look at the book, and not favorably.

Crichton has basically been spending the whole book in second guessing and invalidating his story with his "faux" history, hello Neanderthals. It is fairly obvious that Crichton was a fan of William Goldman and in particular his book The Princess Bride. After all, Ian Malcolm was only "mostly dead" and therefore able to be resurrected for his star turn in The Lost World. They probably even knew each other, being authors who had crossed over into film. When The Princess Bride came out three years prior to Eaters of the Dead I'm sure the interrupted style of the narrative with faux history and the "abridgment " of the "original text" was something fresh and new. In Eaters of the Dead Crichton tries something similar and fails miserably. It's almost as if Crichton missed the whole point of what Goldman was doing. The interruptions were to poke fun at the story, to add something more, and usually that something more was levity. With "faux" history you can never take yourself too seriously otherwise you end up sounding like a textbook. Look to authors who successfully use the footnotes, ie, Terry Pratchett, Susanna Clarke, and Lisa Lutz. They all add some fun with the facts. Crichton misses the boat and it feels like he's taking himself too seriously and with the Neanderthals previously mentioned he seems to almost have a need to make a myth real instead of an enjoyable read.     

The biggest misstep that Crichton made in structuring this book, aside from the "faux" historical framing device, was deciding that it should be a first person narrative. I believe it is the only book he wrote this way, though I have a slight inkling that maybe Disclosure might be first person, but I have no desire to dig up the book to find out. Yeah, I'm lazy at the moment, deal with it. The problem isn't so much in having it first person, but in having it first person with Ibn as the narrator. Ibn would be a prime example of an unreliable narrator and a complete ass. He's the king of the backhanded compliment and derides the vikings for their customs, which he then takes part in as he feels like it, all while saying how disgusting they are. Look how horrid and smelly they are and will fuck anything, oh, I can fuck the slaves too, yeah! Plus, I don't get why Crichton grafted on this true story to the Beowulf myth. I don't think it was to try to push the veracity he was so desperate to claim. The only reason I can think of is to have an outsider to relate to for us non-vikings. But there's no chance anyone is going to relate to Ibn the ass, so his purpose is therefore pointless. Unless Crichton really wanted us to hate the narrator...

Plus Ibn as narrator restricts the story so much. We don't get the grandeur and depth that is possible with this story by being forced into the confines of this bigoted ass's mind. Think how awesome vikings can be? Seriously, to make them boring Crichton should be awarded a special prize. Just look at what's popular on television right now! The History channel has a huge hit with a show just called Vikings! Also how about the whole How to Train Your Dragon book and movie series? This is a culture that we are fascinated with. Their achievements for the time where amazing and Crichton made them boring. Seriously boring. I mean, how did he do this? Maybe the people reading this when it came out in the mid-seventies saw something I didn't, but I seriously doubt it. If there's one Crichton book I would say to skip without compunction it would be Eaters of the Dead. Seriously, skip it. Move along now.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: June 9th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In England in the late 1920s, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, on a convalescent trip to the countryside, goes to visit three old school friends in the area. The three, all unmarried, have recently bought a house together. They are a part of the generation of "superfluous women"--brought up expecting marriage and a family, but left without any prospects after more than 700,000 British men were killed in the Great War.

Daisy and her husband Alec--Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, of Scotland Yard --go for a Sunday lunch with Daisy's friends, where one of the women mentions a wine cellar below their house, which remains curiously locked, no key to be found. Alec offers to pick the lock, but when he opens the door, what greets them is not a cache of wine, but the stench of a long-dead body.

And with that, what was a pleasant Sunday lunch has taken an unexpected turn. Now Daisy's three friends are the most obvious suspects in a murder and her husband Alec is a witness, so he can't officially take over the investigation. So before the local detective, Superintendent Underwood, can officially bring charges against her friends, Daisy is determined to use all her resources (Alec) and skills to solve the mystery behind this perplexing locked-room crime."

Adore Carola Dunn and Daisy! But damn, look at that awesome cover! The flowing patterns are to die for!

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Published by: Random House Children's Books
Publication Date: June 9th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Shopaholic series comes a terrific blend of comedy, romance, and psychological recovery in a contemporary YA novel sure to inspire and entertain.

An anxiety disorder disrupts fourteen-year-old Audrey’s daily life. She has been making slow but steady progress with Dr. Sarah, but when Audrey meets Linus, her brother’s gaming teammate, she is energized. She connects with him. Audrey can talk through her fears with Linus in a way she’s never been able to do with anyone before. As their friendship deepens and her recovery gains momentum, a sweet romantic connection develops, one that helps not just Audrey but also her entire family."

Anyone else look at this cover and think YA Where'd You Go, Bernadette? 

More Fool Me by Stephen Fry
Published by: The Overlook Press
Publication Date: June 9th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
" By his early thirties, Stephen Fry—writer, comedian, star of stage and screen—had, as they say, “made it.” Much loved on British television, author of a critically acclaimed and bestselling first novel, with a glamorous and glittering cast of friends, he had more work than was perhaps good for him.

As the ’80s drew to a close, he began to burn the candle at both ends. Writing and recording by day, and haunting a neverending series of celebrity parties, drinking dens, and poker games by night, he was a high functioning addict. He was so busy, so distracted by the high life, that he could hardly see the inevitable, headlong tumble that must surely follow . . .

Filled with raw, electric extracts from his diaries of the time, More Fool Me is a brilliant, eloquent account by a man driven to create and to entertain—revealing a side to him he has long kept hidden."

Adore Stephen Fry! His fiction, not so much, his biographical writing? Hell to the yes!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Movie Review - Congo

Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, Grant Heslov, Joe Don Baker, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Bruce Campbell, Taylor Nichols, Joe Pantoliano, Delroy Lindo, Stuart Pankin, Peter Jason, James Karen, Shayna Fox, and Frank Welker
Release Date: June 9th, 1995
Rating: ★
To Buy

Charlie Travers is leading an expedition in the Congo to find diamonds to power high tech communications devices, in other words, lasers, for TraviCom, a company run by his father. Charlie misses his second check in with his father back in Huston and when they get the video feed back online they see death and destruction everywhere and a mysterious ape like creature rushing past the camera. Charlie's father, R.B. Travis, begs his employee Doctor Karen Ross to go to the Congo. Karen agrees if the expedition is really to save Charlie, her former fiance, and not to get the diamonds. In California, Doctor Peter Elliott runs Project Amy, which has been teaching Amy the gorilla sign language. Amy is amazing, she has a glove that allows her to actually speak when signing and she's learned to paint. Of course the paintings are actually a form of therapy to help with her nightmares. Peter wishes to return Amy to her home in the Congo but the University doesn't want to lose Amy and the cost would be prohibitive. Enter Herkermer Homolka, a philanthropist who claims his interest is to see Amy happy, when really he suspects Amy is the key to finding the lost city of Zinj and King Solomon's Diamond Mines. Do to necessity Karen Ross attaches herself to Amy's party and they have only a few political hiccups in entering the Congo. With their forces combined will they find the diamonds, Charlie, or Amy's home? Or will they find nothing but death and destruction?

In 1995 Congo was tied with Sphere, well, maybe a little ahead of Sphere, as my favorite Crichton book; and it was going to be a movie! Not only that, it was going to be a movie with Tim Curry, my most favorite of all actors! Rocky Horror and Clue forever! The movie just happened to be opening right after my junior year of high school ended. I was counting down the days to summer break and then the last few weeks of my junior year descended into hell. I got the sickest I had ever been in years, I can still remember the pain as if it was yesterday. I had such a severe ear infection that I kept thinking if only I could get that metal spike from The X-Files and jam it in my ear everything would be better. I didn't sleep for days, making me test the theory that if you stay awake for three days straight you're insane. I quite possibly was, but aren't we all mad here?

I was so disoriented I picked up a soldering iron in art metal from the wrong end. Yes, that's right, I thought why not pick it up by the searing hot metal end that likes to burn flesh. Luckily for some unknown reason I picked it up with my non-dominate left hand, so I could at least still write and take all my finals the coming week, oh happy day. I spent all my spare time trying to finish my stained glass project with my one good hand, and then I had a week's worth of finals and on Saturday morning, before getting to see Congo, I had the ACTs. Because what better then to take the ACTs with a fever of 104! I still say getting a 26 when I was giggling to myself at the absurdity of my situation and randomly selecting answers was pretty darn good. It was good enough for the school I was applying to so that's all that mattered. And then, after all this suffering, my reward was Congo. It wasn't much of a reward. 

Of all the adaptations of Crichton's films Congo is begging for a remake. If not just for the advancement in technology, could the new version try to maintain any aspect of the book, oh, and can Andy Serkis play Amy? Bring back those ominous hand paddles and crush some skulls! Seriously, I have a new cast in mind and it would be awesome. Just saying, Jennifer Lawrence, Lee Pace, and Toby Stephens. Back to this version... the biggest and most detrimental change from page to screen in my mind is the changes wrought with the character of Doctor Karen Ross. Putting aside my hatred of Laura Linney, because I have a strong feeling that it was this movie that started this hate, this adaptation once again shows that for Hollywood woman can't be strong and ruthless, yes they can be strong, yes they can make tough decisions, but it all comes down to gooey romantic feelings. Ah, ick. Karen Ross didn't want to go to the Congo to prove she could do it, to succeed and get the diamonds at all costs, as in the book, oh no, she went to rescue her ex-fiance and her boss's son! Yes, it's all about saving someone she loved!

I wonder if Michael Crichton when watching all these various films of his books ever cringed. He doesn't write weak females and yet time and again they are made weaker. By making Doctor Ross all about her heart they are taking a book about ruthless business practices and making it into a doomed love story. By doing this they are shifting the burden for their journey into the Congo onto Amy. Amy's return to the wild becomes foremost. Instead of Amy being an addition to the expedition, Doctor Ross is an addition to Amy's release. And this change doesn't work because this throws the whole plot into turmoil and forces the movie to add in unnecessary characters that are literally cannon fodder in an attempt to keep the diamond subplot. And yes, that is a laser powered by diamonds. Yes, seriously, lasers! Lasers that could punch a hole in the moon. Say what? I know a psychic vegan who can do this and yes, it is still more believable the this freakin' laser.

By taking Doctor Ross out of the driver's seat the movie now needs someone to get Amy, she is now the star after all, to Africa AND have the interest in the diamonds. Hence, as much as it pains me to say he's an unnecessary character, Tim Curry is brought in as the ludicrous Herkermer Homolka. Firstly, who thought of that name? Secondly, why are we having this weird H. Rider Haggard throw back? The whole point of Congo was to have a modern interpretation of the adventure novels of Haggard, not do this weird clash of modern and old fashioned. Mesh the two don't set them off against each other. Also, Curry is basically the great white hunter, but so is Ernie Hudson, why do we need two characters that could, in a better written story serve the same purpose? For my money, despite my adoration of Curry, I'd stick with Hudson, he was the only one who was perfect in this plane wreck of a movie.

But, oh dear. Despite ranting about all the changes I haven't even gotten to the worst of it. I'm talking about Amy. Firstly lets talk animatronics. All the apes were done by Stan Winston who, if we were to judge him by this movie, has never seen an ape in his life. Seriously. What they hell. By the end of the movie we're in this weird guns blazing human engineered ape cave with everything going to shit in epic The Island of Doctor Moreau fashion, what the fuck. And I mean the crappy film version. Which came out a year after this film and was also done by Stan Winston. Sigh. So firstly, we have apes that don't even look like apes, then add Amy's "Power Glove." Though, to reference the Nintendo Power Glove is a disservice to Nintendo. So apparently having Peter translate Amy's sign language or even just having subtitles wasn't "cool" enough and instead we get this weird childish talking ape. And yes, if you ask me at a party, I will do my impersonation. Yes, it's so bad it deserves one. Easily. Also, interesting fact, if you had a friend named Amy in high school, this might just be their most hated film because of the "Power Glove."

The first and only time I watched this film I was so distracted by plot changes and talking apes I missed the weirdest part of this movie, and that's the jungle itself. Now, I'm not talking about the built sets that looked like they were rejects from Legends of the Hidden Temple or Xena: Warrior Princess, a conclusion that is easy to reach because of Bruce Campbell being in the movie. I mean seriously, look at that river, doesn't it look a little chocolaty to you? Is that ape throwing eyeballs at Bruce really Augustus Gloop? That is a whole different level of cheesiness. No, what I'm talking about is that the jungle is SO OBVIOUSLY NOT Africa, something my fevered brain missed the first time around. Yes, it's probably hard to get permission to film there, but still... why not just build the whole freakin' jungle, you badly built enough of it already. For the majority of the film I thought perhaps I was mistaken in the film's stupidity of not even filming in Africa, but the credits confirmed it. Costa Rica it is! In fact, isn't this the rain forest where some dinos fled to after leaving Jurassic Park? But then again, the people behind this film obviously thought the viewing public was made of idiots having the lost city of Zinj's architecture based on Cambodian temples... you know, that Asian country half a world away... or maybe they were just so stupid they didn't know or care. Because if you walk away from this film with one impression it's that it was made by idiots.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Congo

Congo by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 1980
Format: Paperback, 316 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc. has a contract in the Congo to find a source of blue diamonds that can be used as a power source. They are fighting against a consortium of Japanese, Dutch, and German corporations so time is of the essence. When the first team is attacked and killed, possibly by gorillas, Karen Ross, despite her youth, begs to lead the follow-up expedition to not only find the diamonds but find out what really killed the first team. She wins over her boss's objections and also gets him to agree to something a little unconventional. ERTS funds Project Amy, which is a research endeavor by Doctor Peter Elliot to teach a Gorilla, Amy, ASL. She has always been an amazing student until recently when she has started to have nightmares. Nightmares of a place that just happens to be where the ERTS expedition met their fate. Ross has a feeling that Amy is the key to figuring out what happened in the Congo and to beating the consortium. But the location might be the biggest mystery of all. What really happened in the lost city of Zinj all those years ago and what will happen when they reach it?

When my Crichton obsession began in earnest Congo was the elusive Crichton book that I wanted to read more than any other. The only problem was I couldn't find a copy! In the back of one of my other Crichton books I had read a description and seen a grainy image of the cover and I knew deep in my bones that this would be the best book he'd ever written. I JUST KNEW IT! I looked everywhere to find a copy. I trolled the few bookstores in town, all to no avail. Every new town I went to I looked for it in any store that sold books, including drugstores and grocery stores, growing more and more frustrated. Why did my go-to bookstore in Door County have every Crichton book BUT Congo? Then one day, I saw it. Hilldale is a small shopping mall near my house that we went to mainly for groceries and shoes. They had a Walgreen's half way between the two stores. I was wandering the magazine aisle waiting for my mom to finish whatever it was she had come to do and there, on the bottom rack, was Congo. I couldn't believe that after all my searching I had found it in our local drugstore! I spent some time admiring the cover, imagining the story that the inside would tell, and then I dove in, and it was everything I had hoped for.

Of all the books I've picked up to re-read for my Crichton Celebration, this was the one I was most looking forward to. But I knew it had to be at just the right time. Firstly, and most importantly, I had to have a stretch of time where I could read uninterrupted. Once this book was started I knew I wouldn't be able to set it down again. Secondly the atmosphere had to be just right. It wouldn't feel right driving into this book when the view outside my window showed barren trees and a winter bleak landscape. Spring has finally come to Wisconsin and with it green has returned to the world. If I angled myself just right in my reading chair all I could see was verdant green and I could imagine being trapped under the humid canopy of the Congo. The weather played along with my reading plans bringing high humid and torrential rains and as night fell the colors outside my window mimicked the cover of my book and I felt chills. All these years later the mystery was still waiting between the covers for me. I devoured this book at a rapacious speed and sat back fully satisfied with a Crichton book for the first time in a long time.

Even as an over eager teenager Africa held me in it's spell. Growing up my parents ran an art galley and the artist we represented spent many years in Africa and his tales recounted by my father would enrapture me, as long as they weren't about mummies trying to kill me, a perennial favorite of my father's. When I went off to college I took a vast assortment of classes for no other reason then because they looked interesting. One class I was enrolled in was an African History class. While I would eventually drop this class due to an unconscientious TA who looked like Eric Stoltz and lazy teaching, I read a fascinating book on the Congo called King Leopold's Ghost. Sign number one I really didn't belong in that class is I was the only one who enjoyed the book because of it's insights. This book combined with my recent reading of Nelson Mandela's "Autobiography" gave me further insight on this reading of Congo. These two books led to a deeper understanding of the political strife in the book. The fact that the Chinese are a large presence in the book might shock some and was originally overlooked by me, but it's important because they viewed Africa as a place where revolts could lead to emerging countries using Communist ideals in setting up their governments. They helped Mandela's cause strongly, something I don't think many people are aware of.

But it wasn't just a greater sense of the current political strife in 1979 but the precedence of previous conflicts that I was made aware of. Congo is very much an adventure story the likes of which H. Rider Haggard would have written. When Haggard was writing the African continent was just being opened up and explored, and therefore being fought over and divided up by the various European Empires. No one at that time thought of Africa as anything but a big piece of land to be divvied up like a game of Risk. Flash forward a hundred years and it is still happening, but with different players and a faster timeline. The Japanese, the Dutch, and the Germans are trying to outpace the Americans for diamonds. The parallels are uncanny but Crichton doesn't beat us over the head with a stick. When I read this in high school I saw what I wanted to and read a rollicking good adventure. While the adventure is still there, to the older and hopefully wiser person I now am I see that Congo is showing a rape of a continent, mimicking what has been happening for centuries, but at a startlingly rapid rate.

To take this discussion even further, do we think that Africa would be in this state of political upheaval with wars and disease if not for what other countries have been doing for hundreds of years? The number one thing I learned from Mandela's book is that Afrikaners have historically been jackasses. These are people who are descended from Dutch settlers and Apartheid, that was all them. Outsiders destroying Africa. Raping and pillaging, taking diamonds and gold and slaves. Also, encouraging insurrection, handing out guns to every rebel who asks for one. I'm sure if we tried we could fuck up this country even more, but seriously, hasn't the rest of the world done enough? Deforestation, destruction of species, millions dead. I think that's enough. Crichton is able to show how truly horrible our actions are with what Ross does with one small explosion. She is so intent on finding the diamonds she was sent to Africa to find that she inadvertently starts a volcanic eruption that destroys a lost city that has survived for hundreds and hundreds of years right next to that volcano. But more then that she destroys the deadly, but new species of Gorillas! With one move she takes their cultural past, their resources, their wildlife, and their ecosystem. Seriously, how are we to survive with idiots like this in the world, and yes, Ross seriously reminded me of someone I know.

Re-reading so many Crichton books back to back you really start to see the similarities, especially between Jurassic Park and Congo, which both involve intelligent animals that are underestimated and people die because of this. But Congo succeeds on so many more levels then Jurassic Park, even if the Grey Gorillas of Zinj are basically Velociraptor prototypes. The reason Congo works is that it does a better job of keeping the suspense and drawing it right out until the last minute. At the beginning you get a hint of the danger in the Congo to come but it's not till the book is 2/3rds done that they actually make it to the camp site where their co-workers died. Yes, there are plenty of other, more mundane dangers, but they are just place holders for the real dangers, the Gorillas. But the Gorillas are more successful as villains because we have another ape to compare them to in Amy. Damn, I love Amy. Not just her personality, but the form of science she represents with being taught ASL and the deep connection this forms between her and Peter. In the end, nothing mattered except Amy getting a happily ever after, everything else was just extra.

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