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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gremlins 2

At the recommendation of commenter, I checked out Gremlins 2. (See the original thread here.)

Yikes. Where to start... orientalism, stereotyping Asian tourists, transvestite jokes. My notes even mentioned child molestation, but thankfully I can't actually remember to what that referred!

(Yeah, I take notes during movies. You gotta problem with that?)

On the plus side: 80's hair and clothes, yoghurt bars, mad-scientist twins (twins!).

I still can't decide whether Hulk Hogan's cameo falls into the plus or minus category.

The movie was off to a promising start: it didn't take itself seriously. The kid tries to convince security guards about the thread of the gremlins, and the guards just laugh at him. "Hey kid, if we can't feed them after midnight, what happens if... you put one on a plane, and it crosses a timezone?" But the movie stopped being funny after that.

For example, the movie tried reference the first Gremlins movie and/or purchasable accessories as many times as possible. This is disgusting commercialism. Never mind that it was an attempt at irony; no. In fact, a cable show announcer tried ripping into the first movie. "It's just mindless violence perpetrated on innocent people; this is trash!" he proclaims. In fact, he spends quite a lot of time dwelling on how bad the first Gremlins movie is. Don't buy the VHS tape, he says.

No, no, no. This isn't irony. These movies are mindless trash. Wrecking a skyscraper, mindlessly killing and maiming people -- not funny. Pointing out what the movies are -- also not funny. Not irony.

Please, folks. Do me a favour. Don't buy the VHS tape.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Pilgrim

A recent find from the used bookstore: Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon Dickson, an author I'd not actually heard of before.

It's very easy to summarize: aliens have invaded earth, and the resistance movement seeks a leader.

In many ways, this was a great book. The aliens, the Aalaag, are shown to be different from humans -- most sci-fi has aliens that act like humans wearing funny suits. Not so in this novel; every time the main character, Shane Evert, thinks he understands his master, he suddenly learns that he didn't understand them at all. And Shane is by far the most able to understand the aliens: as a natural polyglot, he speaks the Aalaag language almost fluently. The rest of the humans, and particularly the resistance movement, are laughably ignorant about the Aalaag's intentions and motivations.

That interplay between what-is-human and what-is-alien was really neat to see.

I also enjoyed the slow process by which Shane was drawn into the fight against the Aalaag. He, more than any other human, understands that such a fight cannot be won, and only slowly does he decide that the fight is worth making.

In other ways, the novel was a bit flat. The personalities are... dull. Dickson's treatment of women characters was juvenile; this was written in 1999? It reads more like a 1950's novel -- we can overlook subtle (or not) misogyny in novels from less-enlightened times (Heinlein, anyone?), but for a novel published less than a decade ago? Baffling.

I enjoyed the novel, but I'd recommend it mostly for light reading.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What makes a good children's story?

I've been musing lately on what makes a good children's story. There are, of course, as many styles of stories as authors, but in particular I've been thinking about the typical "zany" story.

Harry Potter, for example--although I'm not personally a big fan--is based largely around characters stumbling through really loopy situations. The Sorting Hat, Platform 9 and three-quarters, the utterly bizarre rules of Quidditch. (Think about it--would you really put your life on the line for a game in which only one member of your team gets to score beaucoup points? This game would not be fun.)

For an example that I like, how about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? I hardly need to point out how bizarre the story is, but darn it, it's so fun!

Maybe the key to a children's story is hyperbole? It's the difference between a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a double-heaping waffle cone of rocky road ice cream with an extra scoop of mint chocolate chip, with whipped cream, hot fudge, and a cherry on top. (Mmm... actually, that sounds good!) Anyway, my point is: a "typical" children's story (if there is such a thing) paints with bold colours.

How about the The Hobbit? It does have long stretches of serious, but these are always broken by the bumbling antics of hobbits or dwarves. The dishes consumed at the introductory feast, for example, is pure hyperbole. The trolls--surely we're meant to laugh at both the trolls and the dwarves?

Let's consider the Lemony Snicket stories: An Interminable Series of Events (something like that, I think). These stories are all based around bizarre situations. Yet... Lemony Snicket just doesn't have the sparkle of a good story. And what's the difference?

I don't know.

It's not the melancholy--I would hardly object to that. It's not really the length, although certainly one does suspect the stories were split into so many volumes in order to maximize profits. The characters of the children ought to be endearing--and they just aren't.

I also deliberately picked this example, because opinions are of course so subjective. There are quite a lot of fans of Lemony Snicket out there, who would vehemently disagree with my opinion! (I'd take on Harry Potter instead, but I value my life.)

I started thinking about this issue because I recently read The Wind Singer (William Nicholson), which had all the promise of a lovely story. Two children (twins!) are exiled from the authoritarian city of Aramanth. They decide to go on a journey to rescue the key to the "wind singer", a legendary device that will purportedly bring happiness to the city. Naturally (because that's just how this works) the key to the wind singer is kept by the all-powerful Morah, some sort of evil overlord who lives off in some vague direction.

I thought for sure this was going to be a good story. Charming characters, charming background, the possibility for fun situations. And oh, oh, no, it was not.

Lessons for budding authors out there. Unless you are Victor Hugo (and you aren't), don't send your characters fleeing through the sewage of a major city. Eww! That's not fun! I don't care if they do meet friendly sewage dwellers, who eat the stuff--eww! And also, you shouldn't have any disgusting characters tag along for the ride. The, err, intellectually challenged classmate Mumpo turns out to also be a major character (surprise!). He's repulsive, generally covered in snot and drool, in love with one of the twins, and he has no redeeming qualities. Awkward. Not just for the twins, but for the readers. Is this supposed to be funny? It just made me uncomfortable.

The story is an utter flop--yet how do I say it's so different from other children's stories? How is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland genius, and The Wind Singer utter crap? At least Lewis Carroll avoided sexual harassment and potty jokes, but... there's no plot, none of the characters have redeeming qualities (not even Alice, who's an idiot! Though in fairness, she did grow a spine at the end).

And ultimately I'm still left with the question: what makes a good children's story?

I don't know.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Blob

Finally! I had promised myself (and our readers) to watch... The Blob.

The quick summary (but really, who doesn't know?): some blobby alien thing lands on earth and starts oozing around, eating up people. (Obviously a winner with this plot!)

Great movie! It was clearly a low-budget movie, but that often helps. The focus isn't on the special effects, but actually a bit on the plot. A couple of teenage kids, and occasionally their friends, run about town at night. They try to help an old stranger; they drag-race with their friends; they meekly submit to the police -- and then of course sneak out of the house later at night. After a while, the kids realize what's going on, and they try to warn the sleepy little town. Alas, the blob has already grown in size; a horrible death for the love interest's little brother is imminent!

True, at the end of the movie, the special effects did get a bit strained. And the acting... well, we're not graced with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Hey, we'll settle for Steve McQueen.

And who doesn't want to spend an evening reveling in 50's suburban icons? Poodle dresses, bobby socks, and saddle shoes... midnight showings of horror movies at the theater... the classic diner! And space paranoia*!

I was totally born in the wrong decade. Sigh.

(For an excellent review, see here.)

* No communists, though, that I recall. And I don't quite remember whether I caught a glimpse of a nuclear fallout shelter in town... maybe I'm confusing that with another movie. So it's true this movie didn't hit quite all the icons of the 50's, alas.