Book #21: A Study in Scarlet (1887)

By: Arthur Conan Doyle
Language: English and a paragraph of Latin
Finished reading on: 5 Feb 2012

This book holds the prize for most paradoxical: it’s the oldest book I’ve read since I started counting two years ago, and yet I read it on my Kindle, an undeniably modern piece of equipment. I bought said device in London before I got on the plane to come to Tokyo, and I loaded it up with free (and legal!!!) ebooks from Project Gutenberg, which is well worth a visit. It’s all out-of-copyright works, so they’re all older than 100 years now, basically. But more on the device later.

This book is the first in the Sherlock Holmes series, and details the introduction of Holmes and Watson. It’s not the first Sherlock Holmes story I’ve read, although it’s the first full novel that I’ve finished; and I’ve seen a few adaptations of the works too, but I didn’t actually know that much about the backstory of Sherlock Holmes, such as the fact that he’s a chemist of some description, or at least spends time in the labs. I had assumed that that was something they’d added to the BBC Sherlock series to make him more modern, but it was just as present in the book here.

As for the story itself, it is also roughly the same as the BBC adaptation’s first installment (which changes the name to “A Study in Pink”). A lot of the same twists in the plot were kept between this book and the adaptation, such as a particular word written on a wall, and yet a lot of them were changed significantly, such as the identity of the culprit, who only bears a resemblance in the adaptation.

Where the book completely fails is in its second half; without any explanation, we are transported to the Utah territory and treated to a story of treacherous polygamous Mormons. It later transpires that this is the backstory of the villain, but a little warning would have been nice. Of course, at the time, people may not have been reading the book for Sherlock Holmes, because it was his first introduction, but now that’s the only reason people are going to be reading this book, so his excisement from the second half of the story is annoying.

As for the twist ending, it’s predictable a mile off by modern standards, although probably because of itself. And I had seen the BBC adaptation with the almost-identical twist ending just over a month previously.

Anyway, it’s good. Conan Doyle’s prose has aged well, and is not very difficult to follow (this is in stark contrast to Gulliver’s Travels, which I have sort of gotten bored of reading at the moment), so even when the story became about something I didn’t care about, it was still not too difficult to finish. Plus it was quite short. A good read, and if you’ve not read any Holmes before it’s worth starting here, but it’s maybe not the best of the books.

Just while I’m here, I thought I’d mention the Kindle again. It’s a nice piece of equipment, and it’s worth noting that you’re not tied into the Amazon DRM in any way, although it is one of the easier ways to get books for it. It’s capable of the internet, but I can’t get it to connect to the ad hoc wifi that I set up on my laptop, and it’s a bloody pain to try and type on, since I got the cheap version with no keyboard. Turning pages isn’t obvious at first – it uses buttons on the sides, but it’s lower button = forward and upper button = backward on both the right and the left side of the device, which is a bit unintuitive at first, and I still accidentally press the forward button on the left side of the device trying to go back. As for the screen, it’s quite nice, although I’ve found it difficult to read in low light. But you can certainly read it outside on a sunny day, unlike a laptop screen.

I just need to find something else decent to read on it, now. I’m currently on the second part of Gulliver’s Travels, and I would like to read more of it, because it’s quite enjoyable, but its prose is very thick, as I said, and it hasn’t aged very well. Has anyone got any other recommendations for books to get for it?

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Film #50: Super 8 (2011)

Director: J.J. Abrams
Language: English
Length: 112 minutes
Watched on: 21 Jan 2012

This was the second film that I watched on the plane over to Japan, whiling away the long hours. It concerns a group of teenagers trying to while away the boredom of living in the midwest by making films on an old Super-8 camera. I think it was set in the 70s or 80s, where such things would have been more common. Then a big train accident happens right in front of them, and as the saying goes, their lives are turned upside down. Naturally, it’s all captured on camera.

Trying not to give too much away, during the rest of the movie, strange things start happening around the kids, and the military set up shop in the town. There’s some kind of cover-up operation going on. It gets weird and only makes sense within its genre by the end of the film.

Overall, it was quite a good film, but I just wasn’t gripped by it. It certainly had its moments, to be fair, but as to the entire plot, I can only give a basic outline (and I don’t want to do that because it’s better to watch it without major spoilers). It scores points by actually having kid actors instead of older kids and young adults playing the children, which lent it more credibility, although I found it a bit unrealistic when the two kids whose voices hadn’t even broken yet started fighting over a girl. I think that’s just a strange and foreign world to me.

Is it worth watching? Yeah, probably. I think Stephen Spielberg was involved, so it was definitely a quality production. So perhaps it’s worth a shot.

Film #49: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Language: English and some ASL
Length: 105 minutes
Watched on: 21 Jan 2012

I think I was introduced to this film by Mark Kermode on his podcast, who also missed it when it was out in the cinemas. I ended up seeing it on a plane, of all places, whiling away the dark hours probably somewhere over Siberia, on the way to Japan. So I only had a rather small screen to watch it on, unfortunately.

One thing I should mention is that, while I’ve seen both the Charlton Heston movie and the Tim Burton remake, I’m not particularly familiar with any other films in the Planet of the Apes franchise. This film is essentially an origin story, and is officially yet another Reboot to the franchise, whatever that means. Apparently it is pretty much a remake of an earlier film entitled Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Its plot essentially covers the story of a scientist creating a drug to try and cure Alzheimer’s, and when they test it on apes, it makes them smarter. I guess it’s set some time in the near future from now. If you know even the slightest thing about PotA you can probably fill in your own gap now. It’s not a particularly cerebral plot in that regard.

The human characters tend to fall into archetypes, such as the scientist, the businessman, and the evil bully (the zookeeper, essentially), played by Draco Malfoy Tom Felton, in a rather disturbing turn. The main guy, the scientist in charge of the main ape, called Caesar, has a rather tepid romance with some woman, and a sick father who he is desperate to help – this brings about the main plot.

Evidently, the main ape roles were played by mocap actors, and I guess compared to some other mocap work I’ve seen (Tintin….), the fact that they’re not humans at least eliminates the problem of the uncanny valley, as it did with Gollum, so realism becomes less of an issue for them than it does in Tintin, for instance. I think Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) actually played the main role, too; he seems to be in everything related to mocap now. Realism aside, the graphics are pretty good. I just can’t help but wonder if that’s because we’re looking at non-humans, though. I think one of the main problems with the film was that while the human characters are, for the most part, boring archetypes, the ape characters, especially Caesar, are expressive and show a full gamut of emotions. This is OK, I suppose, since it is his film at the end of the day, but I would have liked to see the same level of emotional involvement with all of the characters.

Anyway, overall it was an enjoyable movie for me, but it felt a bit unremarkable too. After a few months, I can only give a basic plot outline about the thing. Themewise, I guess it has things to say about consumerism, and has a few warnings about the dangers of the unknown in science: it essentially seems to be saying that humans should stop toying with nature, which I don’t necessarily agree with. The apocalyptic element is one that I’ve seen coming up a lot recently, as well, which makes it feel worrying because most of the plot (apart from a bit of magic unexplained science) is perfectly plausible. Because it’s actually set close to the modern day, it feels more relatable than the original PotA, which doesn’t really go into why the planet is full of apes, and leaves it up to the viewer’s imagination. So it’s certainly worth a watch.

Film #48: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Directed by: David Lynch
Language: English (and some French and Spanish)
Length: 140 minutes
Watched on: 18 Jan 2012

I watched this film on the train on the way down to London, where I was leaving to catch my flight to Japan. By the time I got to Japan, even in the first week it felt like forever ago, and I was surprised that I still had the DVD with me and hadn’t left it at home. A lot has happened since I got here!

The film itself is complex, to say the least, but fairly ordinary fare for Lynch. I was fairly sure of what was going on up until the last 20 minutes, in which so many alternative readings of the film were offered up that I just wasn’t sure what to think anymore. Characters suddenly merged together or split apart, and some scenes seemed to be repeated with different actors. Before that it had had a fairly linear plot; after that I was no longer sure quite who was doing what to who, and what exactly was supposed to be a dream and what was reality.

But overall, I kind of sat back for a minute and realized that it doesn’t really matter what happened, since it’s a film and not reality, and I kind of embraced the fact that I wasn’t sure what was going on, and that the film could easily just be several stories wrapped confusingly up into one. So I enjoyed it in the end.

It was quite a dark and slow film for the most part. As with other Lynch works, such as Twin Peaks, which I’m still currently watching, it lapses into weird sequences sometimes, most of which are recalled in the final 20 minutes of the film when all the story threads get woven together. Partly for that reason, I feel sure that if I watch it again, I’ll notice lots of things that I didn’t the first time around, or I’ll be more likely to remember parts from the first act that resurface in the third.

So yeah, overall I’d give this a thumbs-up. Obviously it’s not for you if you’re not into confusing Lynchian works, but if you are it’s probably less accessible than Twin Peaks but more accessible than Inland Empire, for example. Mind you, if you’re actually into Lynchian works you’ll probably have seen this one, since it’s one of his most famous, so perhaps I should amend that to “confusing arthouse films” or some other such label. I liked it, anyway.

TV: Futurama

By: Matt Groening & David X Cohen
Year: 1999-2003 & 2010-2011
Language: English
Length: 13 + 19 + 22 + 18 + 26 = 98 episodes
Finished watching on: 15/1 (series 1), 23/1 (series 2), 28/1 (series 3), 2/2 (series 4), 22/2 (series 6)

I’ve liked Futurama for a long time now, and having watched the feature-length episodes recently, I decided in January to start watching all the ordinary episodes too, right from the beginning. Futurama was often compared to The Simpsons in its early days, but the presence of a coherent plot if you actually do decide to watch it in order is something that has never quite existed in The Simpsons. It seems to have struck a neat little balance between having episodes that can be watched as standalones or as part of a series depending on the watcher’s choice. But apparently Fox never bothered with the intended order, so there are a couple of different choices of watching orders: is it the production order, or the broadcast order, for instance? I’ve gone with the production order here, because it is simpler to wrap my head around and seems to make things more coherent overall.

It’s a good show, anyway; it’s funny and throws in a geek bonus joke occasionally. But it’s by no means amazing; it does have the feel of trashy TV to it, and it commits just about every sci-fi fallacy in the book… and yet gets away with it because it seems to do so knowingly.

As one of those shows that’s been uncancelled, it has a bit of a complicated history to it. It’s fairly easy to see when you look at the fourth season (the last before the show was originally cancelled) that they were now trying to pull out all the emotional stops and get some resolution to the romance between Fry and Leela especially, and some of the most involving, arresting and tear-jerking storylines occur in this season, quite unexpectedly for a show that used to just be full of crude jokes.

Then they were cancelled, and brought back again, and frankly, when I watched season 6, although I was thrilled to see new episodes to the series, it was like they had lost some sort of direction. There isn’t as much of a sense of will-they/won’t-they? with Fry and Leela anymore, for instance. Some of the episodes just felt like a parade of characters reciting their catchphrases, particularly one in which everyone is gender-swapped for a day.

But in general it is a show that I like, and I very much enjoyed watching it all the way through; it formed a sort of backdrop to my first few weeks in Japan, too.

To sum up, it’s a bit like the Simpsons, but actually has emotions to it sometimes. It’s completely ridiculous half the time, but is an excellent vehicle for the creators to explore all sorts of themes and tropes, and make a wide variety of parodies and satires. I do need to resist the urge to shout out that something that just happened is completely unrealistic sometimes; usually it’s something insignificant, as well.

Anyway, give it a try if you’ve got this far and haven’t seen it!

Film #46: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Language: English, with bits of French, German and maybe Romany thrown in
Length: 129 minutes
Watched on: 30 Dec 2011 (the last of 2011!)

Out of copyright works are always interesting because there can be multiple active adaptations of the work concurrently, as is essentially happening here: we have Ritchie’s Hollywood adaptation of Sherlock Holmes and the BBC’s iPhone adaptation with the man who really doesn’t look like a fucking otter. So I can now compare them directly. To be honest, I reckon Cumberbatch does a better job of the role than Downey – mainly because he exaggerates all the sociopathic characteristics that exemplify Sherlock Holmes – but since this film is actually set in the Victorian era, Downey actually looks the part. Also, compared to the BBC adaptation, this doesn’t involve nearly enough detective work – in fact, Holmes seems to use some kind of super bullet time sense to work out what’s going to happen in a fight more often than he looks around a room to determine what the fuck happened at the scene of a crime.

The relationship between Holmes and Watson, however, is just as homoerotic as it ever is in the BBC adaptation, though. Here Downey and Law are at least as much of a bickering married couple as Cumberbatch and Freeman ever were, and it’s one of the few elements that is kept alive throughout the entire film, as unfortunately the rest of it starts to unravel.

I will start here by noting that I can’t remember almost anything from what happened in the first iteration of this franchise (there was something involving Tower Bridge, I guess, but that’s about it), although I’m not sure you need to know the plot of the first movie to understand the plot of the second. That said, I’m not sure what you do need to understand the plot of the second movie, because I had a pretty hard time of it. For some reason, Holmes and Watson embark on some kind of romp around Europe chasing Moriarty, barely taking in the sights of one locale before being ushered onto the next by some contrivance. It’s tiresome, and it culminates in them ending up in Switzerland atop the Reichenbach Falls in some ridiculous castle that seems to defy all possible laws of gravity and physics by attaching itself to the side of a mountain. It was there, I guess, that the film passed out of the realms of believability for me.

I got bored during the film, anyway; it wasn’t as exciting as what I’d been expecting. Noomi Rapace’s role (as a gypsy) was completely wasted, too; she’s proved in the past that’s she’s an incredibly capable actress, and here she’s presented as some kind of romantic foil for Holmes and/or Watson when their relationship turns sour, and just isn’t that interesting altogether. I also reckon that the plot, while it gives knowing nods to the plot of the Sherlock Holmes canon (eg, the Reichenbach Falls), wasn’t as good because it was a largely original story; and the writers just weren’t as good at pulling together something coherent and interesting as Conan Doyle ever was.

Anyway, we’re still in Christmas viewing, even though I’m actually posting this in April. But I’ll catch up eventually. It’s funny that around the time when I watched this, I was essentially alternating between Sherlock Holmes and Futurama, right up until February, with a couple of blips inbetween. I also read the first Conan Doyle-written book, “A Study in Scarlet”, so that’ll be a blog post for another day. And I can compare it to the similar story in the BBC adaptation.

TV: Sherlock

by: Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
language: English
Series 1 (2010) – finished watching 27/12/11, total length 265 minutes/3 episodes
Series 2 (2012) – finished watching 17/01/12, total length 265 minutes/3 epsiodes
total length: 530 minutes/6 epsiodes

Shows like this one that have a large amount of hype around them tend to put me off. So I had put it off for more than a year before actually getting round to watching it. Then I was quite glad that I had because the new series came out less than a week later, so I wasn’t stuck wondering what would happen next after the big cliffhanger. So my scepticism paid off in a roundabout way in this particular case.

Anyway, it’s Sherlock Holmes. I’ve not read or seen very many adaptations of Holmes, but I’ve seen enough to know what’s generally going on. And the central premise of this show (Sherlock Holmes has an iPhone) is fairly intuitive to get, and I think the writers have done a fairly good job of it. Naturally, they’ve had to write their own versions of most of the stories to feature them in the show, and to fit with the various gimmicks of the modern world that they can now employ, and at this point I’ll just have to be honest and point out that I’m not familiar enough with Conan Doyle’s work to tell what’s original and what’s based on the source material, but whatever it is, they’ve managed to put it together in an entertaining way, and because the stories are their own, even if you’re familiar with the source material, you’re kept on your toes.

There’s a lot to like about this show. But as I mentioned already, the hype around it is a little unbearable… if you’re actually interested in watching the damn thing (as it turned out I was this time around, unlike when the first series was on TV), it’s impossible to move on Facebook or Twitter for the spoilers, and Tumblr still never shuts up about the damn show. And as a friend astutely pointed out the other day, it’s a little too much like Doctor Who, with some kind of insipid BBC Englishiness imbued in it, and yet a dull, grey Welsh background.

While I’m at the complaining, another thing that confused me was how much people can get offended by insignificant things when a famous show like this does things differently from the source material. Evidently Irene Adler was a greater feminist role model in the 1890s version of her story than she was in the 2012 version, although the reasons are flimsy at best (someone pointed out that maybe her crime in the 2012 version was daring to have a sexuality), or there was something about Holmes falling in love with her in this version which he NEVER WOULD HAVE in the 19th century. Or vice-versa, I don’t remember or care. Or maybe we could look to Holmes’ apparent complete and almost militantly ignorant asexuality – I remember seeing a website expanding upon this with image macros, and someone immediately decrying the website (not, interestingly, the show, in which this is a large portion of the humour) for its lack of respect for real-life asexuals. You know, because these things matter.

And for heaven’s sakes, Cumberbatch does not look like a god-damn otter.

The Futurama Movies

Film #43: Bender’s Big Score
directed by: Dwayne Carey-Hill
released in: 2007
language: English
length: 89 minutes
watched on: 25 December 2011
Film #44: The Beast with a Billion Backs
directed by: Peter Avanzino
released in: 2008
language: English
length: 89 minutes
watched on: 28 December 2011
Film #45: Bender’s Game
directed by: Dwayne Carey-Hill
released in: 2008
language: English
length: 87 minutes
watched on: 29 December 2011
Film #47: Into the Wild Green Yonder
directed by: Peter Avanzino
released in: 2009
language: English
length: 89 minutes
watched on: 5 January 2012

I guess these are only loosely defined as films, since they were more like a cross between made-for-DVD movies and are sometimes referred to as Futurama’s fifth season. In any case, I’d been meaning to get around to watching them for a while, so I incorporated them into my Christmas viewing.

The best way of describing these is that they’re just like extended episodes of Futurama. Indeed, they are so much like a normal episode of Futurama that I was already starting to get bored about 20 minutes into the episode, when a normal episode would be drawing to a close, but these were only a quarter finished. That’s not to say they were necessarily boring in themselves.

The first one, Bender’s Big Score, is probably the best of the lot. It takes time travel and takes it to its logical extreme, with contrivance after contrivance so that by the end you’re not even sure where it really starts causally, which is always the best way to play out a time travel plot. It has a relatively large twist in the last act which I guessed quite early on, too.

The second involves a giant alien from another universe who somehow has sex with every being in the entire universe, which I just felt stretched the scale of reality a bit too much even for Futurama, which is usually pretty blasé about these things.

The third, while referencing “Ender’s Game” with the title, wasn’t actually anything to do with it; it was actually some kind of take on the fantasy genre; I think Bender goes crazy and ends up creating a fantasy dreamworld and sucking the others in.

The fourth… actually, I’ve forgotten entirely, except for the ending, which I probably shouldn’t give away. I don’t think the plot was particularly remarkable in this case. I think it may have had something to do with extinct animals…

Ultimately, they’re only recommended for someone who enjoys the main series of Futurama. They’re funny, definitely, and in many ways they’re far more complex and daring than regular episodes of the show are able to be, but if you can’t stomach a regular episode of Futurama there’s no point in subjecting yourself to these; while I found them good (as a fan of the series), I also found them tedious…

Anyway, after watching these I decided to go back and watch the regular series too, so watch this space for the review of that…

TV: Twin Peaks – Season 1 (1990)

Finished watching on: 22 Dec 2011
By: David Lynch & Mark Frost
Length: 1 90-minute episode & 7 45-minute episodes (414 mins total)
Language: English (and a bit of Norwegian)

I first watched this at a friend’s house back in the first half of 2011, and I remember recognizing instantly that this was a great program. But I couldn’t borrow the DVD, and so I only watched the 90 minute pilot episode and the first ordinary episode. And it then went untouched for a few months until I went back to my friend’s, realized that I still needed to watch more of it, and promptly started watching again (I later had to download it to finish the season, annoyingly).

Anyway, it’s less weird than the Lynch films that I’ve seen, but still revels in the chance to throw a weird curveball at you, like a strange dream sequence or whatever. It’s a drama with occasional comic elements, with the central premise that Laura, a high school student in the remote mountain town of Twin Peaks, is killed in strange circumstances, and nobody knows who did it. The FBI is called in, and Agent Cook is ostensibly the closest thing the series has to a protagonist; he makes a rather superstitious character, and at one point he tries to use some kind of Buddhist divination to work out where to look next, and is generally a source of mirth in his cluelessness.

It has a good early 90s/late 80s charm to it, what with the hairstyles and slightly grainy quality to the image. Above all, it’s entertaining and I’d recommend it. I don’t really want to give away too many plot spoilers, although to be honest the plot gets so supremely complicated at some points that I’m not sure I remember enough of it to give away. It is also excellent at constructing a foreboding atmosphere and a web of intrigue, and then there’s the whodunnit element underpinning the whole thing.

Along with the complicated plot (which David Lynch later admitted to making up as he went along), however, I think one of Twin Peaks’ major flaws is the sheer number of characters, which take some time getting used to. In many ways it resembles a soap opera in this respect. Certainly at first it took me a while to stop mixing up the various father characters and female high school students that feature in the show, and even now (when I’ve moved onto the second season) I still can’t remember half of their names.

Also, I may be jumping the gun a little by referring to the second season, which I’m technically not reviewing yet, but there was just the most perfect shot in one episode where the camera pans up a table covered in donuts when the police are working on a case. It’s just the little jokes like that that really make this show.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend this show to everyone.

Book #20: I Shall Wear Midnight (2010)

Finished reading on: 15 Dec 2011
By: Terry Pratchett
Length: 414 pages
Language: English

I waited a long time to read this book. At some point over the past few years I got frustrated at buying expensive hardback copies of Pratchett’s books and opted to wait for his next one (ie, this one) to come out in paperback before I actually bought it. So far, so good, although the time between the hardback release and the paperback release is phenomenal (and his newest book, Snuff, is now out in hardback, although now I own a Kindle, so I will probably read it on that, whenever I get around to it), so I essentially waited a very long time to actually read this book.

Anyway, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t really worth the wait; it’s, bluntly, not as good as some other Pratchett books that I’ve read, and in the end, it took me a couple of months to actually get through it.

I think this mainly boils down to Tiffany Aching, and the fact that I find her to be a bit Mary-Sue-ish, even when, as in this story, she’s battling all the elements and things are really going badly for her. She just seems to know all the answers, and yet she’s 15, and a big theme of all her stories is one of growing up.

Why Pratchett had to make a series of Discworld stories specifically aimed at young adults is confusing to me, to be honest. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been reading them since I was 13 anyway, and thus having a teenage protagonist has never seemed to me like the way to aim your book at teenagers.

Anyway, the other thing is that I can’t really remember (it’s been a few years) what happened in the most recent Tiffany Aching stories before this one. So the story starts with her as a full witch (she used to be a witch-in-training), and I’m left wondering when this actually happened. So I guess it’s through a combination of not really enjoying the character herself, not understanding why she exists in the first place in a meta sense, and just not really being interested in her backstory that I ended up not really enjoying this book.

On top of that, I’ve read a lot of Pratchett books, and while I still consider him a funny author, he’s been getting really repetitive. Several tropes recur all the time in his novels, especially the idea that humans have a weirdness censor, or certain jokes that should have been one-off but get repeated in many of his books. So when I was reading this I was finding his sense of humour a bit old and “done” at this point, simply because I feel like I’ve read the same book before.

That said, even a bad Pratchett book was ultimately an enjoyable read, even if I had to eventually force myself to finish it (the train journey back from York in December was useful for that!). And it’s not like the book didn’t have redeeming qualities – as a friend pointed out to me, it really puts Tiffany Aching into a “darkest hour” type of situation, where everything starts to go wrong for her bit by bit and she has to pick up all the pieces, and those kinds of situations are very interesting in a narrative sense. But overall, I’d recommend reading other Pratchett books before this one.