January cultural update

This year began on an island with no internet and plenty of time for reading and DVD watching, so January gets off to a big start.

Books

Player One Douglas Coupland So I read this in no time flat. And mostly really enjoyed it. It was engaging and interesting and entertaining and maintains some of those lovely observations of humanity at which Coupland excels. It also weaved some interesting ideas and themes through the narrative, which were thoughtful. Overall I think I found it more enjoyable than JPod, which while wonderful in parts I found a little too self-indulgent. My main criticism is that, in the final chapter, the book suddenly became preachy and over-determined. I just didn’t think some aspects of it were necessary – it felt like one of those American television programs which can’t leave things implied or at the level of metaphor but has to spell everything out in tedious exposition. Sometimes I think authors just need to trust their readers a little more.

The Ask Sam Lipsyte After travelling to Port Douglas and Brussels to no avail, this book was finally read on Kangaroo Island. It is brittle and clever, funny and repulsive, frustrating and compelling. I think the fact that Milo the central character is not always completely sympathetic adds to the sense of frustration, but it itself mirrors Milo’s own frustrations. It made me laugh out loud and contains some wonderfully sharp and insightful commentary on the current cultural and social condition in Western society. But it does it in a wonderfully absurd and unpreachy kind of way. While it does veer into the absurd, it does capture some things wonderfully well – in particular the relationship between Milo and his son and the randomness of children of that age. Occasionally confronting it is nonetheless well worth the read.

Excession Iain M Banks Part of the on-going project to re-read all the Culture novel.The least dark of his novels (well, at least one of the least), it contemplates the ideas of the ends justifying the means, the nature of conspiracy, personal morality and its consequences and how we deal with the unknown. Fascinating and clever in the way it brings the Minds of the ships to the core of the novel. And surprisingly easy to read on this re-read.

Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher This auto-biographical story of her life clearly betrays its origins as a stand-up stage show, and I think it would have been helped with a bit more reworking. Its structure is a bit too random for a book and many of the lines would clearly be a lot funnier with the appropriate delivery. I have read Carrie Fisher’s fiction before and she is a better writer than this – it seems like a lazy attempt to rush something into print. It is nonetheless quite a fascinating story, particularly the descriptions of her childhood, and very easy and quick to read. The hard-core Star Wars fan might be a little disappointed though as there isn’t a lot of inside gossip in it for them.

Television

Generation Kill Watched this over a couple of nights and now have the urge to go and watch all the Iraq war films there are out there and write more about them. I might also expand on this elsewhere, however for a start I will say that this was cleverly crafted television which captured the confusion and craziness of the war and which provided an interestingly textured view of the marines involved. Fabulous performances too. It was interesting to see the individual anguish over civilian deaths, but the systemic problems which ensured that these things kept happening. It also showed the frustrations of incompetent leadership. It was interesting to compare it to other combat genre films – it hit many of the traditional combat film tropes, but also expanded on a number of themes which emerged in Vietnam films and beyond. But I think that is a separate post. And for those of you not interested in the finer aspects of the combat genre, Generation Kill also has Alexander Skarsgard! With his shirt off! And he smiles! And we all know the smile of Alexander Skarsgard is a beautiful thing to behold. But he is all serious and thoughtful as the leading character also. So highly recommended if you are at all interested in combat films, the depiction of the Iraq war, or Alexander Skarsgard.

True Blood Season 2 This was a rewatch, done over several nights in a row, which I think was a good option. I think I enjoyed it more this time around. I still think its greatest weakness as a season is that the Bill-Sookie-Eric aspect of the storyline is more a supporting act than the main feature, but this time around I found the Maenad story less annoying. Michelle Forbes is so wonderful in the role and so seductive that you can rather understand how she sucks in a whole town, magical powers or none. And the Jessica parts of the series are an understated delight. The main strength of the season is still the Light of Day Institute parts and Jason’s story, but on rewatching I found it more balanced overall. We could always do with more Eric though. It just made me wish I had season 3 handy to start rewatching, but sadly, this was not the case.

Better off Ted Season 1 So this is very funny. Funny and funny in a clever way. Sometimes a stupid clever way, if you know what I mean. In fact, it is probably the most consistently funny thing I have seen for a long time (Weeds and Modern Family notwithstanding). Its take on corporate advertising and identity is hilarious ( I still want to show the “bosses” one to my staff). The other really cool thing about the show is that, even though the characters could be easily be straight caricatures, the narrative manages to make them well-rounded and genuinely likeable. Even Veronica, the apparently heartless boss. Who Portia de Rossi plays brilliantly. Watched the whole series in about two sittings, so it must be good.

Movies

Black Swan Intense and compelling, its isn’t really “enjoyable” in the normal sense. A fascinating portrait of obsession and psychological imbalance. To me, the over-riding theme would seem to be that what is needed to succeed in an area as intense and obsessional as ballet will also destroy you. Fantastic performance – Natalie Portman is amazing. Although plastic surgery has not been kind to Barbara Hershey, somehow her distorted face fits perfectly with the distortion of her world. She carries off this complex and not entirely sympathetic character well. Overall, not for the faint-hearted.

Atonement The film does something which one most needs a literary adaptation to do – be faithful to the overall feel and intent of the novel, if not scrupulously the same – but I think it goes beyond that and uses the benefits of the film genre to the best purpose to make this a truly wonderful cinematic experience as well. The design is fabulous – the green dress which Cecelia wears is stunning in its colour and texture, while Briony’s white dress is beautiful and captures her youth and lack of understanding. Some of the shots and cinematography is absolutely marvellous too – the long continuous tracking shot through the exquisitely designed Dunkirk shows what cinema at its best is capable of. The film is of course horribly tragic and sad, but it is aesthetically wonderful and, as such, I highly recommend it.

Arlington Road As I may have mentioned before, I love a good suspense thriller. This was not one of those. Poorly paced and at times somewhat boring, a relatively unsympathetic main character was just not helpful either. Tim Robbins was appropriately creepy, but Jeff Bridges really has gone to the Al Pacino School of Overacting. And why didn’t he show any interest at all in the wife. It was unlikely and unbelievable, though it was a little redeemed by the ending and twist (though I did see part of it coming).

Games

Carcassonne While this is hardly a new game, and one that the grown ups of the family have played before, it finally entered our household at Christmas, as something that we thought the small boy members of the family might (eventually) be able to play. It has turned out to be an instant family hit, with even the 4 year old proving quite adept. Using logic and puzzle skills means that everyone can play in a meaningful way, even if their strategy isn’t always flawless. Highly recommended if one is looking for a game one can sit around and play with both the youngest and the eldest members of the family.

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January Cultural Round Up

So I have decided as an exciting new feature to give a quick overview at the end of each month of those things cultural which have taken up my attention over the last month. We thus commence with January.

Books

The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov

In a word, Russian. There is something about the first half of books that requires that the plot really doesn’t move along much – I’ll never forget the endless wanderings around the streets for the first half of Crime and Punishment. Anyhow, I did enjoy the second half and clearly it is fascinating as a product of its social time and place.

The Resurrectionist James Bradley

Have not finished yet, but it is darkly seductive, drawing one in and leaving one dreamily wanting more just like the opium Gabriel finds himself taking. And whoever thought that short chapters made a book easier to put down at night. I find myself reading well past my bedtime, figuring just one, short chapter more can’t take very long…can it?

Cinema

Avatar

Well, I have said my piece on Avatar elsewhere to some extent. Beautiful to look at but empty at its heart. And I am sorry, but a “best Film” should really be a bit more than aesthetically pleasing – I generally demand an actual script and some less by-the-numbers acting.

Sherlock Holmes

Strong auteurial influence – it had never occurred to me to think of Watson as a bit of a geezer before. However, rather an enjoyable romp, though I think it might have been better if the central characters were renamed – really, anything other than Holmes and Watson.

The Princess and the Frog

Classic Disney in the classicist sense. Old school animation, American Dream rags-to-riches storyline…Admittedly the “princess” is a poor girl with a dream (Cinderella anyone) and the Prince is a lay about – but let’s face, he is transformed by love and hard work and she is transformed by marriage, so there we go. Nonetheless, not too bad, and I will even guiltily admit I got a little tear at one point – must have been dust in my eye.

Television

The Wire  – Season 2

The charisma of Jimmy McNulty insidiously creeps under one’s guard, and suddenly one finds oneself with a full blown case of TV boyfriend! So far, season 2 is showing itself to be as intriguing as season 1, full of moral dilemmas and perspectives and a demonstration that some of our notions about crime and morality are not as black and white as they could be. Situation, opportunity and grinding poverty are all keys to the story.

Dollhouse – season 1

It occurs to me that this series was just a big chance for Joss to do what he loved to do in Buffy and Angel – make his characters be someone else. Better mid season than its shaky start, I still long for it to be a bit better. The mid season episodes are improved though by Eliza getting to play Eliza, which has always been her strongest suit.

Games

Lego Star Wars  for the Wii

It must be said that the interstitial moments of Lego Star Wars really make you want to get to the end of the level. Wait, so does the frustration of having to do the same annoying thing over a few times… Having never really played one of these types of games before I was somewhat addicted for the first half of the month – and I can see Zelda purchases in my future.

Music

This month was dominated by the Big Day Out which we journeyed all the way to Adelaide to attend. The best discoveries for the day: my mild interest in The Decemberists was heightened by seeing them perform live and Peaches, let’s just say her show is totally, rockingly, insane. For my full run down of the Big Day Out, see here.

100 sci fi women #29: Joanna Dark

To date, the women on my list have come from books, films and tv. However, there is of course another medium which engages with science fiction and fantasy quite heavily, so it is perhaps time to move to the world of gaming. Perhaps the reason why it has taken this long to get to a game character has something to do with the arguments in this interesting piece of women and (computer) gaming. I will confess that I am somewhere in the middle between a “casual” gamer and a hard-core gamer chick. I do play lots of casual type games, but I also have a history with more “serious” computer gaming. The thing for me is that I am just not that engaged by first-person-shoot-em-ups, which is perhaps why I will never become a full-on gamer. And I don’t have enough time in my life for serious WoW.

Nonetheless, one first-person-shooter I have played, and one female character I do like, is detailed below.

Joanna Dark Perfect Dark (Nintendo 64)

Joanna Dark is an special agent of the Carrington Institute, pitted against a rival corporation, dataDyne. Her perfect training scores earn her her “Perfect Dark” nickname. While Joanna is sexy, she was never quite as hypersexualised as her video-gaming compatriot, Lara Croft. She was a first-person shooter, so the player saw through her eyes. In her missions she saves the US President, saves good aliens, defeats evil aliens and generally saves the world. This has got to rate as a worthy female hero. A rare figure in the world of games, Joanna Dark stands on both her own merits, but also on what she represents: a female centred games, where the character who is played through is a woman, not clad in shorts, who is more than merely capable and who can beat the bad guys every time. I just wish they’d make Perfect Dark for the Wii.