Archive for the ‘ 2 Star Reviews ’ Category

REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” (film) by Niki Caro

The Vintner’s Luck

Directed by Niki Caro
2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I should probably mention that The Vintner’s Luck is officially my favourite book ever. As such, I was extremely excited when the movie came out on DVD (having missed it in theatres) and hastened to pick up a copy to watch. I knew beforehand that the author had been disappointed by the adaptation and therefore had very low expectations in spite of my excitement; sadly, they were quite justified.

I will say that the cinematography was beautiful, and the musical score was lovely. Caro really gave you the sense of being in the vineyard, and the story was well grounded in the earthiness of peasant life. Even the acting was well done. For the first, say, third of the film it followed the storyline close enough that I was quite satisfied, but once it started veering off, the movie lost its magic.

What most disappointed me was that Xas was pretty much incidental to the movie storyline, which was all about wine, and women. His relationship with Sobran was relegated to a weird kind of side story, whereas it was supposed to drive the whole plot. Because I adore Xas and found his connection with Sobran to be the most moving part of the book, once I realized that Caro did not intend to address it except obliquely the movie lost a great deal of its charm for me. As for how she handled the ending? Sobran’s death scene was very well done – it was literally like seeing the book come to life – but Xas was totally shortchanged, and that frustrated me.

Don’t get me wrong – Caro did kind of flirt with the idea that he and Sobran had a more intimate relationship. But it was just that; a (somewhat confusing) flirtation, rather than the epic love story that featured in the book. More disturbingly – to me, at any rate – Caro repeatedly has Xas as the aggressor and Sobran rejecting him. Not only was it not the case in the novel, but in emphasizing Sobran’s resistance to Xas Caro ruins the theological point Knox was trying to make, and she also features a scene which is unsettlingly close to rape, albeit of the entirely non-graphic kind. While I loved seeing Xas fly in that scene, it kind of creeped me out a bit, and I can definitely see why Knox was so upset with Caro’s particular interpretation.

I appreciate that Vintner’s Luck really isn’t the sort of book that would translate easily to another medium. A lot of its power is in the language, which is obviously up for interpretation, and it doesn’t have what you’d call an action-oriented plotline. Still, my strongest feeling throughout the movie was “You didn’t get it at all!”. At times it left me questioning whether the reason she changed the storyline as she did was to avoid the flak that would come from showing an angel in a homosexual relationship, and I found the plot she did choose to include rather confusing because the original motivations were missing. I also felt a strong sense that it was not a female-friendly film, odd as that sounds. The women in it were either crazy jealous (Celeste – although she was crazy in the book as well) or cold and hard (the Baroness, who was completely kick ass in the novel). There were also a great many  shots of naked women and sex scenes that, while they weren’t crude exactly, made me feel rather as if I was perhaps not in the film’s target audience, if you know what I mean. It was very much as if she were doing her best to make it into a heteronormative romance, when the entire point of the novel was the fluidity of love.

Overall, I’d say it is a film that can best be understood and enjoyed by those who have not read the book. For me, the plot made a certain kind of linear sense but the driving force behind it was different, and thus it seemed to strike all the wrong notes, like music played on a faulty instrument. Taken as a film rather than an adaptation, it was quite good, though that angelic storyline should have been dropped altogether as I don’t think it added much (anything?) to the plot. As an adaptation, it was not what I had hoped. I am not the nit-picky sort who requires all details to be identical to the book, but I felt Caro robbed the story of its main backbone when she decided to reduce Xas to a peripheral role. I did enjoy it for the lush sensuality of the setting and the music, and the cast was well chosen. There were a number of scenes I felt particularly well done, but aside from that I have to say I was not impressed. She has captured the lyrical beauty of the text, perhaps, but not its essence. A real shame.

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Time of Singing” by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Time of Singing

Elizabeth Chadwick
Sphere, 2008

CHALLENGE(S): Royal Mistresses Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished on 8 Apr 2010

I began this book at the beginning of March, but found it difficult to finish. Not only does it weigh in at a whopping 500 pages, but I found the story itself pretty dry and hard to maintain any interest in.

The back cover asserts that this is a story about a woman, Ida de Tosney, who has to make a heartbreaking sacrifice. The mistress of King Henry II and mother of his son, she longs to escape the court, and her chance comes when she meets and is attracted to Roger Bigod, son of a powerful Earl who comes to the court to settle a dispute with his half-brothers. In order to follow her heart and marry Roger, however, Ida must leave her young son behind.

In point of fact, however, this isn’t so much a story about Ida having to leave her son (which might have been interesting), but a story about Ida becoming Henry’s mistress, having a son, leaving her son, marrying Roger, having more children, pining for her son, and so on. Personally, I think the author was trying to include far too much in the novel, most of which was unnecessary and did not form any kind of interesting narrative. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of writing about real historical people and therefore having to conform to the facts, but I think it would have benefited from a sharper focus and a tighter plotline.

As far as the writing goes, Chadwick is technically competent, but I felt overall that the book lacked soul. She tells us a lot more than she shows, and is so intent on transferring her vision in exacting detail that she doesn’t allow the reader much room to interpret or interact with the story. I also felt the main characters were very much Mary Sues. They were both good people, who made the right choices, always had good intentions, and always did the right thing. Anyone who opposed them was necessarily a bad person by default, and/or described as physically ugly. The conflicts throughout the story felt manufactured and seemed decidedly trivial, even though they shouldn’t have. I got the sense that these were cardboard people being put through the motions; I simply could not sympathise with them. Although the story purported to cover their lives over several years, they didn’t change at all, while their children seemed merely background characters, added into the narrative whenever the author needed to remind us that time had passed, or to generate more ‘conflict’ for the main characters.

I will say that Chadwick has a clear grasp of the time period and a knack for period-appropriate dialogue without clunkiness or artificiality. I also appreciated the reconciliation with Roger’s half-brother near the end, and I am sorry we didn’t get to see more of his character arc as I found it very interesting. Otherwise, I’m afraid the story simply did not resonate for me at all, and had I not needed to read it as part of these challenges I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. Not one I’d recommend.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Every Boy’s Got One” by Meg Cabot

Every Boy’s Got One

Meg Cabot
Pan, 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 14 Mar 2010

You know those authors that you loved once upon a time, only to come back to them later and find yourself feeling a little ashamed of your previous devotion? Meg Cabot is one of those authors for me.

I got into her novels as a young adult, before the Princess Diaries movie came out, and in my own defense at that point they were actually not so bad. My favourites were the Mediator series and 1-800-Where-R-U, which featured supernatural themes combined with a light romantic undertone that completely hooked me for several years. I still own almost all the Mediator audiobooks.

However, as I got older, I began to notice things about Cabot’s novels – particularly those that were primarily romance – that bothered me, and the more I read the more convinced I was that the books I’d loved as a teenager were flukes. Eventually, I swore off her novels (uh, repeatedly…guilty pleasures are hard to break, apparently) but when I picked this one up in a library book sale, I just couldn’t resist.

The premise of the story is simple. Boy meets Girl. Boy thinks Girl is an idiot. Girl thinks Boy is an ass who doesn’t believe in love. Cue external crisis that forces them to work together. Hate turns into searing passion, they elope, end of story.

Look. I’m the first to admit that Meg Cabot has her genre down pat. That right there is a classic example of a romantic plot arc that I’ve used myself from time to time. Unfortunately, her books are thoroughly transparent and seem to just repeat the same elements in different order. Even were this the only book of hers I had read, however, I would still have taken issue with her characters. For one thing, Jane Harris is…well, kind of an airhead. She’s set up to be a successful career woman with an internationally-famous comic strip (WonderCat), but she doesn’t act like it. She’s ditzy, obsessed with romance, makes stupid assumptions about people and is – in my opinion, at least – generally a nice but unsympathetic character. Maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on her if it wasn’t for the fact that I am getting so sick of women in mainstream fiction (and I include films in this as well) being touted as “independent, feminist characters” when they are in reality simply the same old stereotypes repackaged for a new audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person (or character) being interested in shoes/shopping, a fan of Britney Spears, or prone to romanticism, but with Cabot it’s clear that this is not just a character who happens to be this way – the same tropes are repeated throughout her novels. It seems that this is what Cabot thinks all women are, and it comes across as gimicky, trite and, frankly, insulting. I simply could not connect with this woman at all.

Fortunately, Cabot is an equal-opportunity stereotyper. The Love Interest, Cal Langdon, is gorgeous, erudite, intelligent, rich and damaged. His divorce left him heartbroken and unable to trust anyone of the female persuasion, so to satisfy his, ahem, manly urges he dates models. Models.

In short, Langdon is the man every girl like Jane Harris dreams about, and you just know that, after our lovely heroine sinks her claws into him, he becomes putty in her hands. I will be frank and say that I can never really understand those plots which require two people to fall in love instantaneously and permanently; it seems rather far-fetched and, if not impossible, at the very least pretty unlikely. Perhaps I simply haven’t been meeting the right kind of men…

As far as the plot goes, well, many if not all of my favourite books in the world (to name the top three in no particular order: The Vintner’s Luck, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Possession) tend to feature romance as part of, if not the entire plotline. What makes these books stand out from more commonplace works like Cabot’s novels is, in my opinion, they create people. They don’t rely on bad sexist jokes and generalizations to appeal to a wide audience, because the thing that is of central importance to them is the characters and their lives. They also set them against a larger context: Sobran and Xas against the vineyards and 19th century France; Pelagia and Corelli amidst the horrors of the massacres in Cephalonia during WWII; Maud and Roland against a thrilling literary detective story and the lives of two fictional authors in Victorian England. What this does is gives the characters a world to inhabit, a reality outside of themselves which allows them to gain a greater depth in comparison. Cabot does not seem to have mastered a means of doing this, and in fact goes out of her way to strip the world down to just the main cast of characters and their love-lives, in this case by using first person diary and email-log entries to tell the story. I am not a fan of the epistolary novel at the best of times, but even I admit she pulls this off fairly well, if somewhat implausibly. The trouble is, it just doesn’t give that richness of backdrop that I enjoy.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare Every Boy’s Got One with literary fiction since it is not a literary novel, nor is it pretending to be. I will reiterate what I said before about Cabot knowing her genre (“chick-lit” – oh how I despise that term) very well and providing me with hours of reading enjoyment in the past, even against my will. However, I also think it’s rather ridiculous to suppose that there can’t be such thing as a well-written romance novel. Saying a book is a “romance” shouldn’t require that little cringe, or a disclaimer (“It’s not like that! It’s just about these two people…and they fall in love…and…”), and my point in comparing Cabot with other books I have a deep respect for is to demonstrate what, in my view, such a thing might look like. Unfortunately, fun as they undoubtedly are, fluffy books like this one perpetuate unnecessary stereotypes both about the sexes and the genre itself, and as such I find it difficult to read them anymore without both my feminist and writerly sensibilities squirming with embarrassed distaste. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the novel itself.

RATING:

MULTIPLE REVIEW: Three Superman Comics

Superman: The Daily  Planet

Elliot S! Maggin, Louise Simonson, Curt Swan (Illustrator), Wayne Boring (Illustrator), Al Plastino (Illustrator)
D.C. Comics, 2006

Finished 28 Feb 2010

An interesting collection of Superman tales; it was fascinating watching the art change as it moved from the earliest story to the latest (which looked very much like it had been produced in the ’80s-’90s, but I’m not sure). I’m a newbie when it comes to graphic novels/comics but I found this collection very enjoyable and easy to read, if a little lacking in the depth and maturity found in the likes of Watchmen.

RATING:

Superman vs. Lex Luthor

Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Edward Hamilton
D.C. Comics, 2006

Finished 28 Feb 2010

A fun read. It’s fascinating to see the evolution of Lex Luthor’s biography and his relationship with Superman, changing from a random supervillain to a corrupt businessman to – POTUS? What? Anyway. An excellent compilation that really illustrates the overall arc of his character within a limited space; definitely recommended to newcomers like myself as a good resource for catching up on a whole lot of comic-book history at once!

RATING:

Superman: Escape from Bizarro World

Geoff Johns, John Byrne, Richard Donner
D.C. Comics, 2008

Finished 5 Mar 2010

Well, I’ll say one thing for this book; it was definitely bizarre. I did find the commentary interesting on the bonus issues that were included, and speculation on what Bizarro represents, metaphorically speaking. Bizarro himself inspires a great deal of antipathy as far as I’m concerned, however; the stupid speak, the crude drawing, the sort-of-but-not-completely-backwards society…just wasn’t pulled off very well. Ugly art and an equally un-prepossessing storyline made this a failure for me.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Beating Heart” by A. M. Jenkins

Beating Heart

A. M. Jenkins
HarperTeen 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 28 Feb 2010

I picked up this book from a library display because it looked deliciously creepy. I love that cover, and I love ghost stories, particularly romantic ones.  From the blurb, it looked like this would be right up my alley:

She is a ghost: a figure glimpsed from the corner of your eye, a momentary chill, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is 17 years old: Evan Calhoun, warm and alive, and ever since moving to this big abandoned house, he has dreamt of her. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both.

Combining verse fragments with chiseled prose, A. M. Jenkins captures the compelling voice of a long–dead ghost and the perspective of a modern teen, twining mystery and romance in this evocative, sensual, and unrelentingly engrossing novel.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

In the first place, this is not about a ghost-human romance. He doesn’t even realize there is a ghost, he’s just fascinated by (a) the hot dreams he’s been having about her and (b) old news stories/photographs about her death. There’s pretty much no interaction beyond that.

Secondly, the poetry was, um…unique, and it did to some extent give the sense of a disconnected, ethereal narrator, but to be honest it came across as rather pretentious as well. I don’t mind small verses at the beginning of chapters and such, but in general I find verse to be rather off-putting in novels. It also made it feel rather insubstantial – I read the whole thing in an hour or two because there was a lot of wasted space so that the verses could be “formatted” in bizarre ways, so that sometimes there were only two to three words to a page. Minus points for wasting precious resources.

And finally, I was left feeling a little confused about the message of the book. Other reviewers seem to have felt bludgeoned by the anti-teen-sex message, while I felt the complete opposite; it seemed to me that the book treated sex and teenage relationships with respect and honesty. There never seemed to be any judgement about whether or not they should be physically intimate at that age (I think the protagonist was about seventeen). However, I can see how you might come to the opposite conclusion; the ghost girl dies because her illicit boyfriend smothers her accidentally while trying to keep her quiet and avoid discovery. A similar scenario is almost enacted by the modern protagonist and his girlfriend as well.

In all honesty, this seems very implausible to me and smacks of being contrived to fit the author’s agenda. I can only wonder why I didn’t spot it when I was reading the book. I guess I was simply not looking for it (and I got distracted by the irritating poetry). However, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m meant to get the idea that “all premarital sex is bad!” or “relationships based solely on sex end badly.” Hence the confusion.

It wasn’t altogether bad; the characters felt authentic, if unsympathetic, and as I said, I felt the treatment of teenage sexuality was refreshingly direct. A quick read, but an intellectual lightweight. Two stars from me.

RATING:

REVIEW: “Religulous” (film) with Bill Maher

Religulous

Directed by Larry Charles, starring Bill Maher
2008

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

In the absence of any clear direction re: this challenge, I thought I’d watch Religulous as part of my Activist participation this month. I remember when this came out in America a lot of the atheist online communities that I frequent were really excited about it. I also remember that much of that excitement turned to disappointment once they actually saw the film, and quite apart from Religious Freedom month, I was eager to see for myself whether it lived up to the hype.

I have to say, I wasn’t all that impressed. My father watched it before I did and said it was hilarious, but I didn’t really get the humour. Basically, Bill Maher tours the world poking his nose into religious sites and asking people various questions, apparently in an attempt to press home two points about religion. The first point is that people believe all sorts of really weird stuff. He spoke to a man who believes he’s the second coming of Christ; he visited the Creation Museum. He even used That Video (briefly, thankfully) of Kirk Cameron and NZ’s very own Ray Comfort discussing bananas. If you don’t know which video I’m talking about, look it up on YouTube. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll laugh.

Unfortunately, Maher fails to try to understand why people believe the things they do; in fact, he’s more about mocking them for believing in anything. Throughout the film he came across as smug and arrogant which made it pretty difficult to watch with anything other than a pained grimace on my face.

I’m hardly averse to pointing out the flaws of religion. I do it all the time. However, there’s a difference between mocking religion and mocking religious people which I don’t really think Maher understands. There were several times through the film where I really felt he was sniggering behind their backs, which made me annoyed on their behalf. In particular, I remember one instance when he was talking to a group of truckers who worshipped in a small church by the road, saying, “You’re smart people, how can you believe in angels etc.?” when it was quite clear he was thinking “You guys are idiots.”

The second point of the film was that religion is dangerous and needs to be curtailed before it causes mankind to destroy the world. I agree that having government officials who think that nuclear war is not a bad thing and who are living more for the afterlife than for this world is not a good idea; I wholeheartedly believe that religion should keep the hell away from politics and that when people start blowing each other up in the name of their god(s) they lose the right to call theirs a religion of peace. In fact, I agreed with a lot of Maher’s points. But the attitude, once again, had me grinding my teeth. Was it really necessary to be so very condescending? Really? It was frustratingly lacking in objectivity and any real coherent argument; instead it seemed to be trying to convince through shock tactics and/or emotional appeals. Oh, and music. Lots of music. I have to say, I now have “Walk Like an Egyptian” stuck in my head, which I don’t altogether appreciate…

Ultimately, I think this film was aimed mostly at preaching to the choir. It didn’t provide me with any arguments that I hadn’t already heard before, nor did it make a serious attempt to convince or educate – it was mostly inviting me to chuckle at the stupid Christians and the crazy Muslims and the weirdo Jews, while feeling smugly superior because I don’t believe in any of the same bizarre things. I felt that the underlying message was that Religious People are Stupid and/or Crazy, which was something I objected to. I also didn’t appreciate the crudeness of the humour at points and the attitude towards women that seemed to undercut the film. Honestly, all it really did for me was convince me that Maher is kind of a jerk. Hm. Not the effect he was going for, I think.

RATING:

REVIEW: “The God Box” by Alex Sanchez

The God Box

Alex Sanchez
Simon & Schuster, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge

[LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD WINNER]

Finished 4 Jan 2010

I read this book directly after I finished Child of My Right Hand – the same day, actually – and I think it suffered a great deal from the inevitable comparison. In some ways, God Box could almost have been the flip side of Child: the main character has lived in a small, conservative American town since he was born and has consequently been denying his attraction to other guys since he entered puberty. He has a girlfriend, is deeply involved in the Bible Study Group, and goes to church religiously (pun totally intended). His carefully constructed life is shaken, however, when a new boy, Manuel, starts at his high school. Like Simon from Child of My Right Hand, Manuel is gay and he’s not shy about it. The only real difference (aside from personality) is that Manuel also claims to be a devout Christian. Naturally, his arrival stirs up a great deal of turbulence both for Paul and for the rest of the town, culminating in a brutal and unprovoked attack on Manuel one night in the theatre parking lot that nearly takes his life.

On an intellectual level, I found this book very interesting. While it didn’t break new ground for me, it did give a clear depiction of the way the controversy surrounding homosexuality can impact the lives of both gay and straight teenagers. I particularly enjoyed those conversations between Paul and Manuel where Paul tries to “deconvert” Manuel from homosexuality but finds all of his arguments neatly shot down. The author was very thorough and I think this will be a good resource for teens looking for ways to defend themselves on a rational playing field or to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, however, I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would. I’ve rewritten this review about ten times trying to clearly express what it was that bothered me, and I think basically what it comes down to is both writing style and characterization failed, in my opinion, to give any suggestion of depth to the narrative. Paul’s only major character trait seemed to be his inability to accept his sexuality, while Manuel was the Perfect Christian, open and forgiving and (I’m sorry!) irritatingly flawless to boot. In addition, the issue of homosexuality was treated in a very black and white fashion: either a character was open to the concept, or they weren’t. Only Paul seemed to have any trouble coping – everyone else fell neatly into “For” or “Against” camps. Even after Manuel was attacked, I could only sympathize distantly with the main character’s pain and dismay, as the narrative kept me at arms length, telling me what was going on without letting me experience their emotional lives. Essentially, both characters and plot felt like a vehicle for the author’s message – exactly what you don’t want to do when writing message fiction.

Something I also disliked was the ‘reveal’ at the end that the main antagonist had been raped as a child. In the first place, a tragic back-story does not a well-rounded character make (hello there, Mary Sue!). More seriously, though, the whole thing seemed to be dropped into the narrative as a cliché afterthought to provide a convenient explanation for his behaviour and a way of allowing the reader to be impressed by Manuel’s forbearance, not because the rape was a legitimate issue which had any real bearing on the character or story. To my mind this risks leading readers to make the assumption that all homophobia has its roots in a single, negative experience which seems unrealistic and minimizes the cultural and religious aspect the rest of the story deals with.

I feel kind of bad for not liking this. It was obviously written with good intentions and anything which goes to such lengths to dismantle anti-gay arguments that kids probably hear on a daily basis can’t be altogether bad. However, I really think Sanchez would probably have been better off writing a non-fiction book on the subject, either a memoir or possibly an academic study. He clearly has a great deal of conviction, but I ended up feeling a bit browbeaten. It’s clear that I’m not the intended audience for the novel and while I’m sure they will get much out of it, I did not.

All in all, not as good as I was led to believe, although clearly a writer with the strength of his convictions. Worth reading if only as a way to explore the various arguments both for and against homosexuality commonly advanced by Christians.

RATING: