It's been one heck of a month, both personally and globally, and it seems like I woke up every morning to even more awful news. If it's any consolation, we're now officially halfway through 2016. It really can't end soon enough.
But having been given a brief respite in my studies, I found a lot more time to devote to my reading and watching material. There was some bittersweetness and frustration to be found in the conclusion of Penny Dreadful and The Musketeers (though I've not yet watched the entire season of the latter), and any renewal of The Tunnel is still left up in the air. However, we have one more season of Orphan Black to look forward to, though it will be the show's last. Can they stick the landing? Here's hoping.
My run-down of Eighties Fantasy Films That Weren't That Bad is also about to wrap up, concluding with the original Ghostbusters as a sort of lead-in to the swiftly approaching remake. Apart from that, I revisited another video game from the 90s and made a tiny (tiny!) dent in my TBR pile.
The Diary of Ellen Rimbaur: My Life at Rose Red
Years and years ago I watched Rose Red; an original horror miniseries penned by Stephen King. I can't remember enjoying it very much, and yet it obviously stayed with me as when I spotted this supplementary book at the second-hand store (presented as the diary of one of the characters in the miniseries) I was curious enough to give it a go.
Ellen Rimbaur is actually one of the ghosts in the miniseries, and this is her personal record of the strange happenings that took place before and after the construction of her Seattle home. I love getting into the explanatory backstories of hauntings, and though this shed some light on what the heck was going on in the miniseries, it also leaves plenty of stuff unanswered.
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Would you believe me if I said this book has been in my TBR list since 2007? I had it on my Amazon.com Wish List for nine years and then finally tracked it down at the library in which I work (and only because it was on the weeding list!) Hopefully the fact I checked it out means I've rescued it from being discontinued, because it really is a beautiful little story.
Think of it as a fairy tale set in Ancient China with a tone highly reminiscent of Lloyd Alexander. It's funny and quirky and witty, but also has the underlying strength and resonance of old folktales, with tropes like the Rule of Three and Impossible Tasks and Threshold Guardians; making it one of those stories that feels fresh and new, but also deeply familiar in the very best ways.
It also has a gorgeously constructed puzzle-box plot, in which every story element is carefully strewn throughout the narrative, with twists and reveals and character surprises galore. Everything means something, and everything gets pay-off. And no, I haven't given away many plot details – suffice to say that the main character begins his journey for the sake of some sick children, and gets caught up in a much larger adventure involving ghosts, treasure, labyrinths, flying machines, magical roots and missing goddesses.
The Woman Who Wasn't There by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr
I first heard of Tania Head on an episode of 60 Minutes that did an expose covering her extraordinary story. She was one of the survivors of 9/11, having escaped the seventy-eighth floor of the South Tower only to find that her fiancé had been killed in the collapse of the other. Her tale contained everything: a decapitated secretary, a dying man who asked she return his wedding ring to his wife, the "man with the red bandana" (real hero Welles Crowthers) who guided her to the stairs, the fireman who carried her to safety, a terrible arm injury, a romance cut short...
She joined and fought for the newly formed 9/11 Survivors' Network: raising awareness, throwing fundraisers, volunteering as a tour guide, organizing access to the site. And then, after four years of attention, sympathy and a twisted sort of emotional power, the truth came out: she had made the whole thing up. She wasn't in New York at the time of the attacks. Tania wasn't even her real name.
It's difficult to know how to react to something like this: not only that a person could be audacious enough to craft such a monumental lie, but that she could get away with it for so long. The book is a compelling account of her deception, though thanks to Tania's disappearance after the truth emerged, it inevitably lacks a sense of closure.
The pervading question that surrounds the whole debacle is of course: WHY? The book raises some possibilities, but has no definitive answer (perhaps insights from a psychologist should have been included). There was no monetary gain, and Tania initially did a lot of good during her time with the Survivors' Network, and yet as the pressure mounted, cracks appeared in her personality. She staged a coup against the co-chairman of the Network, launched smear campaigns against anyone who drew close to the truth, became impossibly demanding to her inner circle of friends, and forced one of them to relive her trauma so many times that she began having relapses.
We hate to admit it, but pathological liars such as Tania Head make for fascinating stories, though this book also explores the pervading attitude toward survivors in the wake of the attack that she was able to exploit: marginalization, survivor's guilt, PTSD, depression, and a hierarchy of grief that took her straight to the top. One of her former friends later called her an emotional terrorist, and it's a strikingly apt description: theirs was a group that wasn't being monitored, allowing Tania to fly under the radar – much like the terrorists themselves.
If you've ever wondered what the Dark Ages might have looked like had they taken place in the 1980s, then look no further than John Boorman's Excalibur. It's full of medieval pageantry and imagery, but remains quintessentially Eighties in its aesthetic.
It would be ungenerous to say that this movie is the "cliff-notes" version of Arthurian legend, as Boorman does make a valiant effort to gather up all the most important Arthur stories and pare them down into a coherent whole that doesn't take seventy-two hours to watch. As such, Excalibur covers everything you'd expect: the rape of Igraine, Sword in the Stone, the love triangle of Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot, the Lady in the Lake, the quest for the Holy Grail, the birth of Mordred and the Battle of Camlaan.
Boorman also deftly uses symbolism and composite characters to speed things along: Morgause and Morgan le Fay have been combined into a single figure, as has Percival and Bedivere. The power of Camelot is indicated by the shininess of the knights' armour, and Mordred goes from a child to a grown man in the space of a magical montage.
It's not the definitive take on the Arthurian cycle, but then such a thing would require many hundreds of hours to do it absolute justice – and even then, it's the mutability of the myths that make them so enduring.
Time Bandits (1981)
I guess I'm just not the kind of person that enjoys creepy Lewis Carroll/Roald Dahl-esque stories. Granted, a lot of Terry Gillam's humour derives from Monty Python surrealism, but I find that as soon as that type of comedy is inserted into a children's story, things get a little too disconcerting for me. This is totally a personal preference, since I can objectively appreciate the quality of Time Bandits (and the rest of Gillam's work) but ... there we are. It just doesn't appeal to me.
On paper it sounds like a delightful lark: young Kevin is ignored by his parents and so isn't too concerned when he gets caught up in the exploits of a time-travelling band of dwarfs, out to make themselves rich by stealing from various rulers throughout history. But there's a very dark undercurrent to its series of time-travelling vignettes, and an ending that probably would have had me in tears if I'd watching it as a six year old.
Yet at the same time, I had to admire a kid's movie that has amoral protagonists, a child getting orphaned as its happy ending, a cameo appearance from a diffident God, and an underlying message that seems to be: "yeah, you might dream of adventure because your life sucks – but in real life those dreams are pretty awful too."
Kevin is adorable though.
I had forgotten just how good this movie was – relatively speaking. It's full of absolute nonsense on a number of levels, starting with Christopher Lambert's Scottish accent and ending with the arbitrary rules that govern the film's plot, but damn it does all that nonsense well. I mean, really well. I hadn't watched this movie in years, and I was downright astonished by how well it held up.
The movement between the present-day Gathering in New York and the flashbacks to Connor's youth in Scotland were beautifully done, and there's genuine heartbreak in Connor's doomed love story with Heather (tears were shed). Clancy Brown is a fantastic "I'm evil and I don't care" type of villain (I've had enough of tragic backstories – this guy is just a down-and-out monster) and Sean Connery really should have done more comedy during his career – he's so much fun here.
The thing is, everything about this movie is enough. There's enough poignancy derived from the life of an immortal, there's enough suspense in the plot elements to inform you of what's at stake, there's enough tension in the fight scenes to make you wonder how they'll turn out, there's just enough of everything. Nothing is undercooked, but nothing goes overboard either.
I've been told never to check out the sequels, but I really had no interest in them anyway. Highlander had such a great premise I can understand why Hollywood wanted to capitalize on it, but it's perfectly satisfying as a standalone film.
There was a film I desperately want to love trapped within this movie, one in which two women from opposite sides of the track come together to avenge their families and feed the poor, fight against a corrupt government and form one heck of an amazing Romantic Two-Girl Friendship.
This is almost that movie. It tries to be that movie. But it's often so interminably silly that it just can't be.
The dialogue and the scenes whip along at such a breakneck pace that there's no time for breathing space, no room to get to know these women better. The plot is pretty ludicrous, at one point involving Salma Hayek donning ice-skates so she can inch across the tile cracks of a bank floor rigged with pressure plates. And our heroines eventually end up in a love triangle with Steve Zahn. Yeesh. Of course, neither end up with him and instead gallop off into the sunset together, but it's still a terribly unwelcome detour.
(And it comes complete with a scene in which they catch him naked, tie him to a bed and practice kissing on him while he protests that he has a fiancée. Even taking double standards into account, the bottom line of my philosophy is that if it's appalling if done to a woman, it's not acceptable to do it to a man. Sexual assault ain't funny).
But it does at least give us this look between Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz:
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
I had a friend who surprisingly hadn't seen Robert Downey Junior's take on the famous detective, so on the same night Ifinally watched Deadpool, we also watched Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. In terms of characterization I prefer this take on Holmes: essentially antisocial without being too obnoxious about it. Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock often goes out of his way to be arrogant, but more often than not Downey's is simply caught up in his own little world.
It's also a better take on the Sherlock/Watson dynamic (or at least one that I find more palatable). Martin Freeman's Watson is almost psychotically co-dependant on Sherlock for reasons I don't fully understand, whereas here it's Sherlock who is possessive and jealous of Watson. For his part, Jude Law's Watson is a lot more independent and well ... healthy about his relationships with both Sherlock and Mary.
The movie fall into the usual trap of making Irene Adler a love interest (and don't get me started on what the sequel does to her) and the villain's plan is completely batshit insane (fake his own execution and return so that he can claim Satanic powers and rule the world, a ploy that would have taken just one religious fanatic with a gun to put a stop to) but the steampunk trappings are a lot of fun. For me it's one of those movies you have playing in the background while you're working on other stuff.
The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014)
I'm always up for a good wuxia-fantasy film, and this ticked all the boxes: noble warrior, enigmatic woman, gravity-defying fight scenes, politically-charged plots – and even a fair bit of historical context. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, China was in dire straits, with foreign invaders and internal corruption gnawing away at its strength.
Jade Raksha (the titular White Haired Witch) is a Robin Hood-esque figure who fights government officials for the sake of the starving populace, and who dwells in an impenetrable mountain citadel known as Lunar Kingdom, complete with drawbridges and underground catacombs.
A love story emerges between her and a warrior called Zhuo Yihang from Wudan Mountains who gets caught up in the country's turmoil, and though it gets a little cheesy at times, I appreciated that 1) Yihang wins her over with his kindness and wisdom rather than by being an arrogant jerk, and b) though he's the main character, the final battle is fought between Raksha and the male villain, with Yihang used as a liability to slow down her fighting.
Fan Bingbing is stunning – I could watch her for hours, and she's certainly got the type of unearthly beauty that would make people believe she had supernatural powers. There's also an interesting running theme of main characters, both hero and villain alike, having to sacrifice something very dear to them for the sake of something else – whether it be their ambition, integrity or love for another.
The plot is a little too dense to unravel with just one viewing, but there are enough emperors, spies, traitors, eunuchs, secret police, generals and outlaws to keep things perpetually interesting.
So... um... unpopular opinion time: Deadpool was good but not great. I mean Deadpool the character was a lot of fun, but his movie was a standard by-the-books superhero origin film. He submits himself to weird experiments in a bid to cure his cancer, gains superpowers as a result, and then goes on a bloody rampage to avenge himself after said experiments go horribly wrong. Minus a few tweaks here and there, we've seen this plot a thousand times before.
So it's up to Ryan Reynolds to infuse the whole thing with a special brand of fourth-wall-breaking humour, which includes speaking directly to the camera, poking fun at his previous outings as both Deadpool and Green Lantern, and making pointed jibes about the film's budget (it's the reason there's only two featured X-Men).
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie. It's funny and surprisingly heartfelt. But I hope the plot of the sequel can be just as original as its main character.
Maya Cobbina was June's Woman of the Month, and her show was pretty damn riveting (even if it did trip at the finish line). It deals with two main plots: firstly with Maya struggling to save the life of a black man on death row, and secondly with the reveal that her husband is an undercover cop. Though it delves into flashbacks that explore how and why they fell in love, the meat of the drama involves Nick getting "reactivated" as a mole designed to spy on his own wife after she's tapped as the next Director of Public Prosecutions.
By this time his deception has lasted twenty years and he has fathered three children with Maya – so he can't conceive ever telling them the truth for fear his whole world would fall apart. Apart from the race relations, it's also a drama that focuses on the emotional/mental toll that police work takes. Although all of the cop characters begin with high ideals and pure motivations, each one is eventually compromised by what their job requires of them.
There is a last minute twist to the proceedings that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and even threatens to undermine all of Maya's hard work, but the lead-up to the final episode at least makes for a compelling ride.
Also, it has Angel Coulby and she's fantastic. It's a supporting role, but I think it's her best one since Merlin.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1994)
There's a reason this game is usually considered the "official" continuation of the Indiana Jones story, especially after the release of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In short, it's fantastic – not only in its plot (legendary archaeological find, check, vague supernatural underpinnings, check, Nazis, check, feisty love interest, check) but in capturing the general atmosphere of an Indy adventure.
In terms of gameplay, perhaps its most innovative feature is the three paths option, which (after a certain point) allows the player to choose one of three ways to finish the game: with fists, with wits, or as a team with requisite female sidekick/love interest Sophia Hapgood. All three eventually converge again on reaching Atlantis, and it's fascinating to see how each one differs from the other (obviously the puzzles change, but so do certain characters and settings).
One caveat: Sophie Hapgood. Let's be honest, none of the heroines in the Indiana Jones franchise have been particularly good (no not even Marion – she's the favourite, but she doesn't actually get to do much) and Sophia doesn't break this mould. She gets kidnapped by Nazis in every one of the three storylines, and twice in the Team Path. Though you take control of her a couple of times, it's only for minor puzzles, and for the most part her rapport with Indy is standard Belligerent Sexual Tension. I know it was the nineties, but I've since become very, very sick of that dynamic.
Still, it's a fantastic game – and a beautiful one. From the warmth and clutter of Barnett College to the eerie civilization of Atlantis (complete with its own distinctive culture/architecture) the game's backdrops are consistently stunning, as are the details on all the tiny pixelated characters: from Sophia's hair flip to Indy's sceptical hands-on-hips pose.
Oh, and my favourite touch: that the Indiana Jones theme plays every time you use his bullwhip to achieve something.