Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Skiing and a Show

Yesterday was a good day.

Made a tremendous dent in the laundry pile and got a respectable amount of sorting and putting away of stuff in the bedrooms.

When the kids came home, we'd planned to hit cheap night at the movies to see "The Astronaut Farmer". Since the next showing was still three hours away, Avindair and I went over to Pioneer Midwest in Osseo to finally get me my very own cross country ski set! I'd been renting for 1-1/2 seasons, and it was time to make the leap. We got in on their fantastic seasonal clearance sale - most items 40% off or more - and the staff was friendly and knowledgeable.

After the purchase, we had just enough time to grab a quick dinner, change into all of the new gear and hit the trails at Elm Creek Park Reserve. What a difference! Let it be known that I am not a talented cross country skier, but I am determined. With the rental skis I essentially trudged all 2.5 k. With the new, light, waxed skis, the trail was half the work with twice the fun. So worth it!

Since I didn't have to take the time for ski rental pick up and drop off, we got home with half an hour to spare before the movie. We had plenty of time to get changed, load the NerdPod into the NerdVan, and make it to the theater.

"The Astronaut Farmer", starring Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen, is one of those feel-good films you can take everyone to see. Charles Farmer, an aeronautical engineer, Air Force pilot, and space program candidate, is forced to give up his dreams of going into space to due to a tragic family event. He spends the next decade building his own rocket, and enlists the help of his wife and kids to make his dreams come true. A great, warm-hearted family film, "The Astronaut Farmer" is one of determination, inspiration, and love. The science is iffy, but it's the story that will draw you in. Want a movie that you can walk away from with a smile? "The Astronaut Farmer" is the one to see.

Not a bad day. Not a bad day, at all...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Anita Blake, Vampire Boinker

Our friend Saveau introduced us to the world of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter back in 2002. Until then, with the exception of Buffy, most vampire hunters in popular media were old men who carried leather satchels filled with wooden stakes. Laurell K. Hamilton's heroine was a natural-born necromancer with flowing, raven hair, a penchant for penguins, and the kind of acerbic wit that could strip the paint from a Sherman tank.

After only a few pages into "Guilty Pleasures" (1994), I was hooked. Anita Blake was tough, funny, and real. Well, as real as a necromancer / vampire hunter could be.

Book by book, I devoured the prose... but with each one I became a little more disturbed. The books I had admired for their unique take on the genre had turned into not much more than ultra-violent porn with a paper-thin plot. After "Narcissus in Chains" I just couldn't take it any more. Even though I continued to recommend the first few books to friends and co-workers, in 2004 I stopped reading the Anita Blake series altogether.

Until the fall of 2006.

By chance I learned that Laurell K. Hamilton was doing a book signing at The Source, our favorite nerd store in the Twin Cities. I wasn't sure I was that interested in going. Yes, I had loved her early books. Yes, Anita had even been an inspiration for my own character of Cassie Banning in our own low-budget movies with Stone Soup Films. After a little back-and-forth, we decided that Avindair could personally hand over a copy of our latest effort, Pray for Daylight to Laurell K. herself. What the hell.

I brought my very first copy of "Guilty Pleasures" for Laurell to sign. Thought we would be in and out of there. "Hey, Laurell! I liked Anita before she became Anita Blake, Monster Fucker. Thanks for signing the book. Here's out movie. Bye!" Nice and straight forward.

I just didn't expect that she and her husband, Gary, would be so... well.. nice!

So... I bought another book. For the record, I made a mistake. I thought I owned "Cerulean Sins", but hadn't yet read it, so I purchased "Incubus Dreams". As it turned out, I was wrong, but buoyed by listening to Laurell K. speak, I decided to give it a go.

Bad call, Ripley. Bad call.

I really wanted to like this book. I really, really wanted to like it. I liked Laurell K. -- very nice lady, very entertaining to listen to. I liked her husband. He and I chatted about Spiderman and Venom and being geeks.

Sadly, it was not meant to be, Cheri.

It isn't just that Anita's life has become a tangled metaphysical web, though that's ridiculously bad all by itself. The original novels gave us an Anita who was kick-ass and no-nonsense with a dash of humor thrown in. The story was the focus and the romance was secondary to the main plot. "Incubus Dreams", by contrast, was 20 pages of plot, followed by 600 pages of heavy breathing. When I finally made it back to the original plot, I'd forgotten what the freaking story was about. All I knew is that Anita had sex approximately 5000 times in 3 days, had spilled 1/2 of the blood in her veins, and could still walk upright enough to execute a few vampires.

Okay. Maybe she didn't have sex 5000 times, but if I read the word ardeur again I was going to be metaphysically ill. And remember, Anita only had sex with all of these vampires and wereanimals because she had to. If she didn't, the world (or at least St Louis) would be overrun with EVIL.

That's right, folks, Anita was, in fact, boinking to save lives.

How do I know she was saving lives? Because we were reminded each and every time with exchanges that usually went something like this:

Ma petite, you must feed the ardeur or all is lost.

No, Jean-Claude. I'm not going to have sex with any of these incredibly hot male-stripper vampires and wereleopards, and werewolves, and werebunnies with ripped muscles, enormous schlongs, and luxuriously long hair that they all grow down to their ankles. It's just wrong!

I understand, ma petite, but if you do not, Damien will die. And Nathaniel will die. And Micah will die. And Richard will die. And I will die. And no one will be here to protect people, or the good vampires, or the wereanimals, and... and... there will be chocolate in the peanut butter and peanut butter in the chocolate... and...



I said no.

Pretty please?

Oh, okay.

I think what this book lacked was a really good round of editing. There are many, many... ugh... many passages in "Incubus Dreams" that could have been cut altogether. Characters have conversations in which they go over the same point with only slightly different wording, several times. Anita's exposition needlessly over-explains many scenes, new characters are laboriously introduced but never actually used or developed, other critical characters pop up out of the blue. The Anita Blake series, as a whole, is suffering from its success. It's the best-selling, 800-lb gorilla of the vampire action / romance sub-genre. "Incubus Dreams" is so over-written,I wouldn't be surprised if it only went through spellchecker before it went out to the printer.

Why, oh why, did I finish "Incubus Dreams" if I disliked it so much? Why did I spend precious hours of my life reading this thinly veiled romance novel? To paraphrase Khan, "It tasks me. It tasks me and I shall have it!"

Only pick up "Incubus Dreams" if you're a fan of vampire / wereanimal porn. For those who are still interested I won't ruin the ending for you. Not that you have much to worry about there. Believe me, there's not much of an ending to ruin.

Okay, If you'd like a clue as to how it all resolves, three words should do it:

"Wheel of Time".

Everyone else? Avoid it completely and go back to read the first three or four books of the series.

Incubus Dreams

* out of *****

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Novels:

Guilty Pleasures 1994
Laughing Corpse 1994
Circus of the Damned 1995
The Lunatic Cafe 1995
Bloody Bones 1996
Killing Dance 1997
Burnt Offerings 1998
Blue Moon 1998
Obsidian Butterfly 2000
Narcissus in Chains 2001
Cerulean Sins 2003
Incubus Dreams 2004
Micah 2006
Danse Macabre 2006
The Harlequin 2007

Friday, February 23, 2007


"This looks like fun."

I sat back at my desk, browsing the latest movie reviews in the Star Tribune.

"Okay, definitely cheesy fun, but what the hell?"

Today was a good day. Avindair had arrived home before lunch. He'd just finished his final hours at his current, now former, writing gig. I'd been lounging and browsing the Web most of the morning, enjoying a few days off before the start of my new job.

"Wanna see a movie?"

Over the years, Avindair and I have made an occasional habit out of Friday afternoon hooky movies. Spirits were high with our recent good fortune, and we were in the mood for one of those silly, unpretentious rides through the magic of cinema -- and the kids would be at school for at least another four hours. I'd read Colin Covert's review of Ghost Rider: "... a fun little jaunt", "... sly sense of camp". Ghost Rider certainly looked as though it fit the bill.

A few minutes later, there we sat. Tickets, overpriced hot dogs, and sodas that would fill a well in a third world nation in hand. At first, we were the only ones in the theater.

"Wow! Our own private screening of a Nicholas Cage movie!"

Yes. That was sarcasm. It's true, we didn't expect much from seeing the trailers:

1. Flamey motorcycle riding
2. CGI effects
3. Gratuitous Nick Cage eyebrow raising
4. Gratuitous Sam Elliot cowboy squinting
5. Gratuitous Peter Fonda forehead gleaming

We settled in, eager to create our own Joel and the 'bots experience. Unfortunately, a few stragglers eventually filled a total of five more seats. Damn. We'd have to be content with whispered and silent giggles.

Oh, man. Did we underestimate this fetid pile of celluloid.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is a carnival stunt rider who, at a tender age, unintentionally sells his soul to save the life of his dying father. As usual, that bad old Mephistopheles has a few tricks up his sleeve. Johnny wakes the next morning to find Dad in perfect health, happier than he's been in years, and on his way to do his first stunt performance of the day. At this point, Avindair and I simultaneously waved bye-bye to Daddy Blaze. Might as well have painted a target on his forehead and renamed the character "Dead Meat".

Years later, after the tragic demise of Dea... uh... I mean, Daddy Blaze, Johnny is a famous stunt rider (a la Evel Knievel). After much lip-pursing and eyebrow raising, Johnny meets up with his long-lost love, Roxanne, woodenly portrayed by the ballon-breasted Eva Mendes.

Wooden, I guess, except for her breasts... which, I believe, had their own listing in the credits. Every time Eva had a costume change, you'd see more of her heaving bosom and the delicate little cross that said, "I'm a nice girl. Really!" Either Nick Cage or the editors get brownie points for never catching Johnny's eyes trained squarely on her cleavage.

Scene 1 Eva - the plucky former-girlfriend turned TV journalist: Unbelievably tight grey dress
Scene 2 Eva - the ditched, drunken, and disappointed former-girlfriend: Low cut, black spaghetti strap dress, push-up bra
Scene 3 Eva - the concerned, curious former-girlfriend: Unbelievably tight white blouse with load-bearing top button at nipple-height, and artfully displayed peek at bra
Scene 4 Eva - the blandly determined and satanically endangered former-girlfriend: Laughably low-cut blouse and boobs pushed together... just below the afore-mentioned gold cross... cause she's really an innocent, good girl

Back to the plot.

Oh, who's kidding? There WAS no plot. Things just... sorta happened.

Eventually, Mephi gets around to making good (or bad) on Johnny's contract. Johnny is tasked with finding Mephi's juvenile deliquent son, Blackheart, and sending he and his elemental demon gang back to hell. So in truth, Ghost Rider is more like Satan's truant officer than the Devil's bounty hunter.

Through lingering CGI that is far too impressed with itself ("We paid for these effects and we're going to show them, dammit!"), uninspired cinematography, and poorly edited scenes, Johnny eventually finds his mentor, the Caretaker (Sam Elliot). Although Johnny doesn't realize it, the Caretaker is actually the former Rider, who escaped Mephi's grasp 150 years before with a contract for 1000 uncollected souls of unimaginable eeeeevil and lives on the hallowed ground of the cemetery for his protection.

Never mind the little plot gaffe of how Blackheart was able to go into a church, light candles, and threaten a priest, but couldn't step foot in a cemetery to take a piece of paper from an old cowboy.

Things happen. Elemental demon gang gets sent home. Former little wooden girlfriend gets mildly threatened by Satan's petulant goth spawn. The Caretaker has his last pyrotechnic ride. Ghost Rider saves the world and pisses off Mephi. The end.

I knew this would be a cheese-fest walking in the door. I just didn't expect it to be this bad. After all, writer / director / producer Mark Steven Johnson made Daredevil. Not an Academy Award winner, but a fun, superhero flick in the guity-pleasure genre. Then again, he also made Elektra.

Good Points:

- Sam Elliot. True, he's pretty much the same character in everything he does and this was yet another case of cookie-cutter typecasting, I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. One of the few believable performances.
- Donal Logue. The other believable performance. I was genuinely pissed off when his character died.
- Seed of plot premise. The Ghost Rider comics didn't exactly have an established, cohesive origin story. Kid selling his soul to save dad was believable.
- I liked the plot's use of the "Penance Stare" power, even though the effect itself went on too long.
- Great scene with Johnny in jail. Actually elicited a few enthusiastic YEAH's from Avindair and me.
- Scenes between Nick and Sam were some of the best in the film; even the purely CGI "Riders" sequence near the end.

Bad Points:

- There were only two reasons for Eva Mendez to be in this film, and I think we all know what they were. I haven't seen a performance this bad since Thora Birch as the Empress Savina in "Dungeons and Dragons". PLEASE! Someone tell me this woman will never make another talkie again!
- I'm all for cleavage, but Eva's plunging neckline became ridiculous. I actually laughed out loud.
- Plot holes! Why could Blackheart be in a church but not in the cemetery? Why could the Caretaker only ride one more time and how did he know that? What happened to him at the end of the film? When Daddy Devil has millions of souls at his disposal, what would it matter if his son picked up 1000? That's a threat? What the hell made THESE particular souls so especially eeeeevil?
- Bad, bad writing. Really bad dialogue.
- Poor acting. At least most of the cast had an excuse, but Nick Cage, shame on you. The CGI Ghost Rider had more expression.

My recommendation: Only watch this film to get the bad taste of Cat Woman or The Hulk out of your mouth. Rent the DVD, get boozed up, and put away all solid objects that can be thrown. Your television will thank you.


I give it a 2 out of 5.