Sunday, October 26, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Night Out

My trip last weekend to see Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist was my first movie theater outing since catching Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight back in July (there just hasn't been much of interest this movie season). I didn't feel a need to write a review on The Dark Knight as it has been done to death, and I hardly have anything new to offer.

My review in two sentences? The Dark Knight is a heavy-hitting epic that tries to fit too many subplots into one overarching story while misusing the talented Maggie Gyllenhaal and overusing Christian Bale's "Batman voice". But Heath Ledger's brilliant performance as the uber-villainous Joker more than makes up for the film's over-abundance of story and 150+ min running time.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is, of course, a film of an entirely different color ...

In this indie flick, Michael Cera and Kat Dennings play two awkward teens looking for love as they hook up on a whirlwind night out in New York City in search of their favorite band's unannounced concert. Michael Cera, best known for his role in Arrested Development and the recent hits Juno and Superbad, plays the usual - an awkward, but ultimately lovable geek named Nick whose sarcastic, straight-man nature is at odds with the craziness around him. Nick may be the one driving Dennings's character Norah around the city, but it's ultimately Norah who is giving Nick the ride of his life.

Nick and Norah are likable enough as far as indie outcasts go, but just as Dennings is no Ellen Page, Nick and Norah is no Juno. The film is uneven at best - inspired comedic bits and romantic yearnings are tousled up with complete randomness (Nick's ex does a sexy dance??!!), and the general yawner premise - there's a concert, and it's going to be awesome, but, like no one knows where it is!!

With the words "Infinite Playlist" making up 2/5ths of the title, I really expected more of a focus on the music, or at the very least, a memorable soundtrack. Zach Braff's Garden State not only had THE soundtrack of the year, but also the defining song of the film, "New Slang" by The Shins, highlighted when Natalie Portman's character, Sam, insists, "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear."

There's no transcendent music moment in Infinite Playlist and not even an explanation as to why the film's fictional band Where's Fluffy is even worth tracking down across a city of 10 million people for an eventual "secret" 4am concert. The importance of the music and the concert in Nick and Norah's budding romance falls flat without a real band, or at the very least, real songs to tie it all together.

The highlight of the film is definitely the exploits of Norah's wasted friend Caroline, played with great comic zeal by Ari Graynor who stumbles (with her gum) from scene to scene in a daze. Nick and Norah spend half their night trying to track Caroline down, and Graynor's performance is so spot-on, that you understand why Norah bothers to be her designated safe commute home. She's a drunk mess, but at least she's fun.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ode to Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop is one of my favorite fantasy writers, but when compared with fantasy's top names - J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Mercedes Lackey, and of course, King Tolkein - she is an unknown. And thus deserving of an ode (sans the stanzas, lyricism, and poetic structure)!

And So it begins ...

In 2001, I read Anne Bishop's romantic fantasy series known collectively as The Black Jewels Trilogy (Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Throne, Queen of the Darkness) for the first time. In the seven years since, I've read the books at least half-a-dozen times and have lent or recommended them to twice as many friends - leaving my personal paperback copies in tatters (but at least I got 'em back)!

Simply put, the trilogy is wonderful. Bishop has created one of the most fascinating dark fantasy worlds I have ever read. In the world's three realms (the living Terreille, the dead Hell, and the shadowy Kaeleer), there are those who are the gifted Blood (read: magical) and those who are not. The Blood races must adhere to a strict hierarchy of power, determined by their social caste (Warlord, Witch, Priestess, Queen, etc) and the strength of the jewels they wear - the darker the jewels, the more powerful the wearer. To further complicate matters, the entire trilogy revolves around the corruption of this hierarchy (read: nothing is as it should be) and the determination of one vulnerable, but extraordinarily powerful young woman to save the realms by putting everything back in order.

Even attempting to summarize the world's many nuances is enough to make your head spin, but Bishop has put so much thought into the details, that the balance of power, realms, and races unfolds beautifully within the series and its companion novels (including The Invisible Ring and Dreams Made Flesh).

Bishop's writing is not without its flaws. She has the tendency to overuse her own brand of character archetypes - overly headstrong and fiercely volatile women, and men who are either too quick to anger or too easy to pushover. The characters often laugh raucously over jokes or missteps that the reader won't always find quite so funny.

Fortunately Bishop's strengths and creativity far outweigh a couple of bad jokes. In addition to her expressive and highly visual prose, she is particularly adept at writing characters that you can really connect with. Her trilogy's heroine, Janelle, is particularly lovable as she matures from an eccentric, love-starved child to a powerful, compelling woman who must struggle to retain her natural goodness when forced to make the kinds of world-changing decisions that could shatter anyone's humanity. Bishop also excels at the romance, and the trilogy is full of love stories of all shapes, with the central story epic enough to satisfy all romantics (and their boyfriends).

The books aren't for everyone, as there's enough sex and sexuality to categorize the trilogy as erotic fantasy (and more than enough to make a 10th grader blush).

Would Also Recommend ...

For readers who love the Black Jewels Trilogy, I would also recommend aforementioned companion books set in the the same world, as well as another Anne Bishop trilogy known collectively as the Tir Alainn Trilogy (Pillars of the World, Shadows and Light, The House of Gaian). This trilogy is more classically pagan in style, with witches whose powers are based in natural elements (fire, air, water, earth), and with themes of women persecution, suppression, and empowerment.

I am reluctant, however, to recommend Bishop's recent duology Sebastian and Belladonna. In this Ephemera series, the author tries to create yet another fascinating new world that she ultimately spends most of her time trying to set up and explain the way-it-all-works rather than developing her characters and plot beyond two-dimensional archetypes. Readers who are familiar with Bishop's style and who go in with high expectations will be particularly disappointed.

I'm looking forward to next year's The Shadow Queen, and hope to introduce more readers to Anne Bishop's worlds, in the meantime.

Anne Bishop's Official Website

Saturday, October 4, 2008

V.P. Debate From 35,000 Feet

Sarah Palin Debate Flow Chart

Like millions of other politically-conscious Americans (and bored Canadians), I watched the one-and-only vice presidential debate on Thursday night ... the only difference is that I watched it from 35,000 feet in the air while flying from an extremely liberal blue state to a hard-core conservative red one. My plan was to order a cocktail to drown my political sorrows, but JetBlue liquor is overpriced, so instead I mourned my inevitable self-imposed exile to Canada - sober.

Like millions of liberally-minded Americans (and bored Canadians), I watched the debate, hoping to see a major f*ck up from the Republican candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, but alas, the gaffes weren't great.

As a general rule, I try to avoid watching politicians because of the vomit-factor, preferring to selectively read the highlights on Yahoo, but this night I stomached Gov. Palin's maverick-y catchphrases and rehearsed rhetoric, and I wasn't appalled. I think the thinning atmosphere must have been working havoc on my nervous system because I wasn't nearly as terrified of her ideologies as I usually am.

As the governor skillfully avoided answering any questions, I couldn't help but think that, huh, this lady's actually kind of charming in an unpolished, folksy way. If this politics thing doesn't work out, she could probably make a living as a voiceover artist for children's books. With her cheerful twang, she sounds as harmless as Storybook Lady at the Wasilla Public Library, reading fairy tale classics aloud between the hours of 2 and 3 pm. Kids are gonna love her.

And then as we began to descend, I came to my senses. She wouldn't do well as Storybook Lady at all. Too many books would need to be banned or burned. And the older kids might get annoyed when she deviated from the print, preferring to speak directly to the children without actually reading the story at all. And then the whole system would really be in trouble if Storybook Lady were to insist that she's in charge of the library, not merely a ceremonial figurehead called upon only when a tie-breaking vote is needed to determine whether or not late fines should be increased from a nickel-a-day to a quarter.

Storybook Hour would be ruined for everyone. Maybe she should keep the day job after all.