Saturday, August 31, 2013

The 5 Best Episodes of Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre

If you were born in the 80s or later and you have never seen an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre, you were a deprived and neglected child. Shelley Duvall's marvelous series originally aired on Showtime, when it was a fledgeling cable channel, from 1982 to 1985. Each episode narrated a different fairy tale, each with highly unique production design and different major stars, from Robin Williams and Teri Garr to Carrie Fisher and Burgess Meredith. Some of the tales are better than others, the worst being a tacky adaptation of "Pinocchio" starring Paul Reubens a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman, but the lion's share are delightful and charming.

5. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"
Of all the tales, this one is certainly the most haunting and atmospheric. With sets based on the paintings of Jan Breughel, an eerie score by James Horner, and an incredible dramatic performance from Eric Idle, this faithful adaptation of Browning's poem never panders to a young audience, embracing the darkest implications of the story.

4. "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers"
This lesser known fairy tale is about a young man who feels no fear - and isn't pleased about it. In his quest to find out about the shivers, he agrees to spend three nights in a haunted castle and, if he succeeds, he marries a princess. Vincent Price narrates, Christopher Lee is at his Hammer Horror best, and Peter MacNicol blithely plays nine-pins with spooks. Frank Zappa has a cameo.

3. "Hansel and Gretel"
In another dark tale, Joan Collins plays the double role of the stepmother and the witch and it's hard to know which character is more frightening. The production design is based on Arthur Rackham's beautiful drawings. My sister and I watched this episode obsessively when we were kids and it hasn't worn thin, a testament to its compelling interpretation of the Grimms' tale.

2. "The Emperor's Clothes"
Dick Shawn, Art Carney, and Alan Arkin are hilariously funny in this adaptation of the Andersen story, aided by a superb supporting cast playing the various government ministers, townspeople, and most memorably, the army - composed of one man because of the expense of the uniform. The sets and costumes are based on Louis XIV's court at Versailles and the classical score is by Stephen Barber.

1. "The Princess and the Pea" 
This witty and charming production stars Tom Conti as the befuddled prince, Liza Minnelli as the feisty princess, and Tim Kazurinski as the fool who does his best to make everyone laugh. The highly stylized black and white costumes and sets and the catchy score by Robert Folk, together with a pointed satire of everything monarchical and a witty script by Mark Curtiss and Rod Ash, make this one of the best fairy tale adaptations ever, both on the small and silver screens.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My 6 Favorite Fantasy Series

Finding great fantasy books isn't as easy as it ought to be, especially in the post-Potter era, in large part because so many of them belong squarely in the realm of genre fiction. That is, most fantasy books follow the established conventions of the fantasy genre in a such a formulaic way that they satisfy only those who are ardent fans of those conventions. In general, I find that children's fantasy tends to be more interesting and less bound to the conventions of the genre, as well as better written and without the highly fetishistic sex scenes prevalent in adult fantasy. They also tend to be much funnier - a necessity when the genre taken straight is so easily self-parodying. As a result, most of the series on this list are considered children's literature, though I find they improve with age.

6. Westmark Trilogy - Lloyd Alexander
(Westmark, The Kestrel, The Beggar Queen)
Alexander's trilogy is like Game of Thrones-junior - slightly less violent, much wittier, and decidedly shorter. Theo, a printer's apprentice, is on the run after his master is accused of violating strict censorship laws, and joins the charlatan Count Las Bombas, his servant Musket, and street urchin Mickle. All of them are drawn up into a complex political situation that promises to escalate into war. Although written for young adults, Alexander doesn't shy away from graphic depictions of violence and its moral consequences and there are no clear-cut dichotomies between good and evil.

5. The Once and Future King - T. H. White
(The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, The Candle in the Wind, The Book of Merlyn)
This series based on Arthurian legend is the most colorfully imagined interpretation of the stories of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table and White's version of Merlin is definitive. Wonderfully witty and dazzlingly erudite, The Once and Future King is a mixture of medieval saga, meditative character study, and political allegory with more than a small share of romance and magical education. The Disney animated film, based on the first book, isn't a straight-forward adaptation, but is nevertheless delightful.

4. Prydain Chronicles - Lloyd Alexander
(The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King)
This fabulous series, partially based on Welsh folklore, follows Taran, an assistant pig-keeper, a creature  of unknown origins named Gurgi, a bard, and a princess, as they fight the Horned King and the undead hordes born from the black cauldron. Alexander once again creates characters grappling with the moral implications of violence, as they fight to reinstate peace in Prydain. Often unexpectedly funny, the Chronicles offer everything one could wish in a fantasy series. The Disney adaptation is an absolute nightmare of cliched plot and two-dimensional characters - definitely skip it.

3. A Song of Ice and Fire - George R. R. Martin
(A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, two yet-to-be-published volumes) 
Martin's monolithic opus is extraordinary for many reasons. Firstly, these books are incredibly long and complicated, with dozens of characters, and yet there are no significant plot-holes and most of the characters are complex, evolving beings. Secondly, the whole concept of good and evil goes straight out the window, especially after the first book. In no other fantasy series are the politics so circuitous and elaborate that it is absolutely impossible to designate who the "good guys" are (and when you think you have, there's a plot twist coming to prove you wrong).

2. Harry Potter - J. K. Rowling
(Harry Potter and... The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, The Deathly Hallows)
Rowling's series was and is a literary phenomenon that will never be repeated, despite the publishers' many attempts to do so. Rowling's robust sense of humor never fails, even when Harry is in the most dire of circumstances and the series delves into profound issues without the slightest pretension or grandiosity. The wizarding world is one of the most fully imagined of all fantasy worlds, inviting, imperfect, messy, and magical. For all these reasons and quite a few others besides, the Harry Potter books are infinitely re-readable, and I should know, having read them about a dozen times.

1. Chronicles of Narnia - C. S. Lewis
(The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Last Battle)
It's difficult for me to write about the Chronicles of Narnia without descending into a morass of ecstatic superlatives, given that they are my favorite books of all time. Quibbling about Christian allegory often gets these books unfairly set aside (all the more ironic today given that Harry Potter can also be easily read as a Christian allegory), but the Chronicles have much to offer to any reader whether or not he or she is Christian. All the characters, including the children, are wonderful, the anarchic mix of mythologies is delightful, even the illustrations are lovely. But avoid at all costs the abominations Disney has the gall to release as film adaptations because they are truly nauseating.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The 7 Worst Ways They Screwed Up the Fifth Harry Potter Movie

Inevitably, a lot of details and subplots are going to be left out of any adaptation and given the length and complexity of the Harry Potter series, much more had to be left out than any devoted fan is going to like. The fifth book is the longest in the series and has a lot of subplots and threads of character development. Certain omissions are fairly easily forgiven - Quidditch, Ron and Hermione becoming prefects, studying for O.W.L.'s, career counseling - while others are rather disastrous. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is right in the middle of the series, so inconsistencies, whether of plot, character motivation, the basics of using magic, or design, render the whole series less coherent. And, most unfortunately, much of Rowling's marvelous humor and unpretentiousness gets tossed out in exchange for Drama with a capital D culminating in sappy bathos. I have a lot of complaints, but these are the worst, the most unforgivable problems in the fifth movie.

1. Voldemort wears a suit.
When Harry is boarding the train to return to Hogwarts, he sees Voldemort in a well-tailored Muggle suit. Granted, Harry is either imagining or hallucinating him for reasons that are unclear, but seeing Voldemort in a suit isn't scary at all. It's ridiculous. I'm immediately seeing Voldemort walk into a high-end men's shop and fussing about seams and the like, while the salesman tries not to stare at his flattened nose. If Voldemort were wearing his typical robes, this scene would at least have a shot at being scary, but as it is, it's dreadful.

2. There is no excuse for bad CGI with a budget that big.
We know that the Harry Potter movies had a good visual effects team because they did great work on Dobby and the thestrels, plus huge amounts of money were poured into the effects. And even so, the centaurs look absolutely terrible. Their faces are flat, like plastic masks. Why, oh why, did they not use people for the person-part and horses for the horse-part? It worked in the BBC Chronicles of Narnia and they were made in the late eighties and early nineties. The CGI is really bad if a guy superimposed on a horse in front of a green screen looks better.

3. Flying to Headquarters breaks the Statute of Secrecy.
At the beginning of the movie, Harry is rescued from the Dursleys' house and flies with members of the Order of the Phoenix to Headquarters at Grimmauld Place. He is facing a hearing for using magic while still underage and while in the company of a Muggle. So, naturally, he really shouldn't break the Statute of Secrecy again, right? Well, he and his escort fly so low that they almost crash into a boat on the Thames. And, if you look closely, there are Muggles on that boat. So, Harry, already in danger of expulsion and the permanent loss of his wand, along with various members of a secret, subversive society, go ahead and practically ask to be seen by Muggles while flying broomsticks. Special effects shots should never contradict the logic of the plot and this is an egregious contradiction.

4. Prophecies can't talk.
I almost understand why they decided to have the prophecy talk. The audience does need to hear the prophecy because it has a huge impact on the rest of the plot. The problem is all in the timing. Harry hears the prophecy before he faces Voldemort, so he already knows that "neither can live while the other survives." In the book, Dumbledore relates the prophecy to Harry in private after the events at the Ministry. Once Harry has heard the prophecy, he knows that he can't simply win and he can't rely on Dumbledore, but he needs to believe both of those things throughout the finale at the Ministry because he fights Voldemort with hope, both in Dumbledore and in his own ability to survive. And if Harry can hear it, why can't the surrounding Deatheaters (who would have accomplished their mission without lifting a wand) or all of Harry's friends? There are similar problems with the talking letter at the beginning of the film (only a Howler talks), which ironically is marked confidential.

5. Gary Oldman apparently neglected to read the books.
Sirius Black is one of the most important characters in the whole franchise. He's rebellious, bitter, reckless, and damaged.  Gary Oldman's interpretation of Sirius is the complete opposite. He's understanding, resigned, and resembles most closely an over-eager therapist. He feeds Harry stuff like "You're a very good person who bad things have happened to," instead of encouraging him to form subversive school groups, as he does in the book. He has no inner demons, which is bizarre given that he was rejected by his own family, lost his dearest friend, was framed for his murder, spent more than a decade in Azkaban, and is forced to live isolated in a house redolent of his worst childhood memories. What the hell, Gary Oldman? I know you can play traumatized and bitter loneliness, I just know it - you did it in the third movie. And he also wears a nauseating velvet jacket, but at least that's not his fault.

6. Plot holes, plot holes, everywhere.
I could find several dozen plot holes, but I'll confine myself to two of the worst, neither of which would have required a lot of time or expense. The scenes of cleaning Grimmauld Place are cut out, which means we never see a certain locket, which in book seven is revealed to be a Horcrux. In the films, Harry has never seen the locket, and neither has Mundungus Fletcher who later steals it (Mundungus isn't even in the fifth movie). The appearance of a Horcrux is kind of important. Far worse is the exclusion of the two-way mirror, which Sirius gives to Harry as a gift. Part of Harry's guilt over Sirius's death is created by his forgetting the mirror, which would have let him know that Sirius wasn't in the Department of Mysteries at all, but even more importantly, it's by means of this mirror, which Harry has kept for purely sentimental reasons, that he and his friends escape from the Malfoys' estate in the seventh movie. I realize that not everything can make the cut, but both of these examples are important to the series as a whole.

7. "Pah!"
Two hours and one minute into the movie is a clip of less than five seconds that is so extraordinarily awful that it warrants it's very own paragraph. It is a clip of Ralph Fiennes doing a noise that sounds like "Pah" and looking utterly silly and decidedly not scary, sticking out his tongue like Gene Simmons. It occurs right at the climax of the film, when Harry is fighting to prevent Voldemort from possessing him. If it weren't for that stupid "Pah," the montage of memories and Voldemort being scary would be really good. With the "Pah," I spend the last fifteen minutes of the movie pondering the absurdity of the "Pah" and fervently wishing that it weren't there.

What they got right: My favorite scene in the movie is simple and short. Harry is telling Ron and Hermione about his first kiss. All three actors acquit themselves beautifully and it's a scene that is funny and warm and reminds us of what the series is really about: the power of friendship.

Friday, August 16, 2013

7 Contemporary Novelists to be Excited About

I don't tend to read much contemporary literature, though I keep up with what's being published. A big part of the reason I don't read many contemporary novels is the fact that I speed read. A novel by Thomas Mann will take me days, but most contemporary novels can be dispatched in a day, or a day and a half - they just leave less of an imprint because I spend less time with them. But when I find a gem, I pay attention to that author, though it's probably not random that many of these authors write really, really long books. Excluding heavy hitters, like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, and Umberto Eco, and pop culture phenomena, like J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin, here are seven contemporary novelists whose work we should definitely be reading.

Antonio Lobo Antunes
Enormously prolific Portuguese author Antunes has written more than two dozen books, many of them available in translation, and he's still hard at work. My favorite of his is the exquisite The Natural Order of Things, a complex story that weaves the history of Portugal with the secretive lives of a diverse cast of characters, including a teenager suffering from diabetes, a miner who believes he can fly underground, and a woman forced to live in an attic like Bertha Rochester. Antunes's work is ambitious and dense, a cross between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and  a modernist version of Charlotte Bronte.

Susanna Clarke
Author of the fabulous alternate history novel, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke is simply one of the top contemporary fantasy writers. Her writing has a strong nineteenth century flavor, reminiscent of Austen, Collins, and MacDonald, and she deftly manages huge numbers of characters entangled in very complicated plots. Her first novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two rival British magicians who have revived the ancient discipline of magic. She is currently working on a second book set in the same alternate history timeline.

Kathryn Davis 
Davis is my favorite contemporary American author and one I discovered entirely by accident. Her books have the magical qualities of fairy tales, a Dahlian sense of grotesquerie, and an unflinching view of human violence and cruelty. She has written six novels, including The Girl who Trod on a Loaf, about the friendship that develops between two women, one a composer writing on a opera based on the Andersen fairy tale that shares its title with the novel, and Versailles, a gorgeous re-imagining of Marie Antoinette's life. 

Andrei Makine 
Russian-born Makine, who writes in his second language, French, has not gone more than three years without publishing a novel since 1990. The speed at which he works is all the more incredible given the Flaubertian precision and powerfully sensual descriptiveness of his writing. All but three of his recent works have been translated into English, including the incredible The Crime of Olga Arbyelina, about an expatriate Russian aristocrat whose son suffers from hemophilia, and the critically acclaimed Dreams of My Russian Summers

Vikram Seth
Seth has written three novels, numerous volumes of poetry, non-fiction, and a children's book. He's best known for his masterpiece, A Suitable Boy, a novel about arranged marriage and tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, which will hopefully have a sequel, A Suitable Girl, published soon (Seth just missed his deadline and the publishers are less than thrilled). Seth has an extraordinary ability to write about music, its performance, and its practice, and he has fostered a close kinship with Pushkin, and in particular, Pushkin's masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, that enriches the works of both writers.

Kamila Shamsie
One of my favorite living writers, this Pakistani author, who writes in English, was deservedly included on the Granta list of best young writers this year. Shamsie doesn't shy away from moral complexity either in her own characters or in the labyrinthine politics of the post- 9/11 world. Her most recent novel, Burnt Shadows, follows her characters from World War II-era Nagasaki, to New York and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 and is a searing depiction of the chains of violence ensnaring ordinary people in an increasingly globalized world.

Kate Walbert 
This American writer has three novels and a volume of short stories under her belt. Her first novel, The Gardens of Kyoto, is both about adolescence and the remembering of adolescence, as well as a delicate examination of what it means to be a woman in a world at war. Walbert's language is haunting and subtle, but it also has a spoken quality to it that renders it unusually accessible, while her meditations on memory recall Milan Kundera.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium

It's been a summer of big budget flops, most with the normal array of explosions, CGI monsters and robots, explosions, sequels/reboots, explosions, drunken buddy humor, and, oh yes... explosions. I've been waiting all summer for a science fiction movie that actually has a plot and characters and I've sort of found it in Elysium. Granted, there are the requisite number of explosions (let's not be too crazy), but this movie has a heck of a lot more going for it than your average summer sci-fi flick. It's still too early to say how well it will ultimately perform at the box office, but current numbers aren't very exciting.

The movie is set in 2154. While the rich live in a paradisaical space station, Elysium, where all illnesses and injuries are easily cured, everyone else remains on a terribly polluted and crime-ridden Earth. Max (Matt Damon) is a former criminal who's trying to clean up his act while working in a factory that makes police droids. When a workplace accident leaves him slowly dying of radiation poisoning, he agrees to go on a mission to steal data from a citizen of Elysium in exchange for a ticket to Elysium - his one chance to survive. There are a lot of twists and turns, many of them legitimately unexpected, and the ending manages to be both predictable and unforeseen.

Director Neil Blonkamp (District 9) clearly wants to make a social statement about class and the uneven distribution of wealth and he sometimes succeeds. A "medbay" has eliminated all need for medical care on Elysium; on Earth, hospitals are completely overrun, struggling to provide care for anybody. Nearly everyone on Elysium is white; the population of Earth is highly diverse. Surprisingly, none of these choices feels heavy-handed, perhaps because these signs of wide class divisions are quite familiar. Unfortunately, the social commentary is frequently overwhelmed by extensive, bloody action sequences, which, while awesome, are fairly standard and give cause for all the standard complaints. They can be very hard to follow, with cuts so frequent that the screen is just a gory blur, and special effects departments are still doing that annoying thing where the action slows way down and speeds way up, a la 300. Blonkamp is trying to have his cake and eat it too - make socially relevant science fiction and a violent summer blockbuster. Elysium works better than one would expect, but even so, it has a mildly schizophrenic quality. Should I be feeling terrible that all those people are miserable or should I be gleefully enjoying the sight of a gazillion police droid pieces fly into the air?

My biggest complaint by far is the same complaint I have nearly every time I go to the movies. In the Hollywood movie universe, there are apparently way fewer women than men. Way fewer. Though you see lookers-on and passers-by, there are basically two women in the whole film - the bad one (Jodie Foster) and the good one (Alice Braga). The bad one is aggressive, manipulative, and power-hungry; the good one is angelic, caring, and a loving mother. Neither one has any complexity or even the typical "quirk" Hollywood bestows in lieu of personality. The movie still works - it's just sad that a movie clearly meant to be socially progressive is so very backward when it comes to gender.

But it's the yearly drought of intelligent entertainment, so I'll forgive quite a lot. Elysium is definitely a movie to see in the theater. If you're going to see a droid explode, it should be a big droid.