TV: Orphan Black season 2 (2014)

orphanblack2creators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
language: English with a bit of German and Korean in the first episode
length: 10 episodes of 44 minutes
finished watching on: 22 June 2014

This is the TV series I’d been waiting for all year, after it being by far my favourite of 2013, and it didn’t disappoint. It starts off strong, and keeps going in every episode, constantly feeling under pressure and with many dramatic turns happening constantly.

I can’t remember if I mentioned that last year, but it’s even more prominent this year that this is a direct result of the more “British-style” production of making a smaller number of episodes with a dedicated team of two, who can give the episodes a consistent level of writing throughout and manage to completely avoid useless filler, except for an indulgent scene in the final episode. The balance between comedy and drama is also maintained to some degree, although increasingly it seems that some episodes are deemed mostly comedic or vice-versa, instead of having a mixture of scenes within each episode.

Tatiana Maslany’s acting has also come on by leaps and bounds this time. I still look at all the different performances and can’t believe they’re the same person: even though her appearance changing between the clones is mostly superficial, the performance really influences my mind to believe that they genuinely are different people. That and the visual effects team, presumably – I’ve seen some very fascinating on-set pictures of Maslany interacting with her double. It’s much more naturalistic than predecessors such as The Parent Trap or Austin Powers, where the characters almost didn’t interact at all, and when they did, it was visibly with a double hiding their face from the camera. Here they brazenly put both faces on the screen together and have one messing around with the others’ hair, or as in the picture above, lying right on top of each other with a gun in hand.

Storywise, the plot is getting ever more complicated as the series goes on – for instance, by the end of this season, there are many new characters and (spoiler alert) a whole new set of clones introduced. The new Amishesque religious characters introduced here are probably even creepier than the ones from the first season in the darkened rooms. The full role of some of the characters has yet to be realized even now – for instance, we still don’t really know where Mrs S comes from or who she supports in the whole debacle.

A lot of the first half of the season takes place out in the countryside, away from the city, which makes a nice change of pace from the first season, totally set in a claustrophobic metropolis. The characters feel more vulnerable out there, perhaps unable to find help so easily. I quite liked this change of pace, and it helped to mentally distinguish the new storylines from the old.

The background theme and discussion of personal identity and female empowerment is much stronger in this season, too: there is the newest clone, Tony, who is transgender, as the most notable of all the additions, cementing the creators’ quest to include LGBT characters more and explore those kinds of identities, but there’s also Cosima, vehemently defending her right to make her own decisions about what happens to her body, or Rachel, getting violently upset when she discovers that the clones were deliberately made infertile.

The ending was much more low-key this year than last. Last year there was a huge cliffhanger, but this time, although we don’t know what will happen next, I don’t feel such a sense of urgency to find out. Nevertheless, I’m going to have to wait until next April to find out what happens next, and I can only hope that the creators manage to add in some more episodes next time; even just a couple will make it less difficult to wait for the next time.

Book #62: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001)

heartbreakingauthor: Dave Eggers
language: English
length: 810 minutes (13 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 14 June 2014

Still working my way through Humble-Bundle-supplied material, this is another audiobook via them. It’s an autobiographical tale and the first book by Dave Eggers, about how in his early twenties he was tasked to raise his preteen brother after his parents died.

It’s narrated by a guy whose voice I now recognize from two other audiobooks (Swordspoint and American Gods) as part of their extended casts – a very distinct and powerful voice, and with a noticeably AAVE/black English-hinted accent. This leads to confusing moments when the author of this story mentions that his brother had never met a black person before or how there were only two black guys in his school, clashing with how the voice sounds.

It’s an interesting subject matter, certainly, and interesting enough to keep me listening, although I also found the author and the character by which he portrays himself to be very self-absorbed. It’s also told in a very stream-of-consciousness style, which can lead to humour but also led to me tuning out quite a bit. This is especially obvious during the extended preface and acknowledgement chapter, here confusingly presented at the end of the audiobook. It also leads to me not fully being able to recount a lot of the story.

It was fine, anyway. I enjoyed it, despite having nothing particular to say about it. I probably wouldn’t quite go so far as to recommend it, though.

Film #121: Kill Your Darlings (2013)

13037-1director: John Krokidas
language: English
length: 102 minutes
watched on: 11 June 2014

I think it’s probably best to admit straight up that my reasons for watching this movie were a little pervy – the two main things I knew about this movie before seeing it, besides a skeletal outline of the plot, were that Daniel Radcliffe (as a young Allen Ginsberg) has a gay sex scene, and that his costar is Dane DeHaan, who I’ve already noted as being cute. However, this is misleading, as while Radcliffe and DeHaan share a kiss at one point, the sex scene is with an anonymous stranger.

The story of this movie is based on the true story of how the various beatnik poets came together during the 1940s in New York, when Ginsberg was at college with Lucian Carr, who introduced him to the others. Carr was relentlessly pursued by an older gay man he had had a previous regretted relationship with – by the end of the movie he kills him and renounces the idea that the feelings were ever mutual. Disgusting practice of internalized homophobia notwithstanding, DeHaan gives a great performance in the role, using his boyish good looks to remain broadly in control of any situation or character, for most of the movie at least.

The performances are the real draw with this movie, anyway. Apart from that, the main good parts were the fleetingly glimpsed nudity and the window to look into lives gone by and see how hedonistic the men’s lifestyles were – but they are all pretty insufferable as characters. At times I’m pretty sure I got actively pissed off at the way they expressed themselves.

The film is also not beautiful – it is often sparsely lit and the colours are all washed out like a sepia photograph. I realize it was going for a certain aesthetic, but it’s not one I like myself.

My reasons for watching this, thus, haven’t changed when it comes to recommending it. Unlike many other films where I find other reasons to like it, this one didn’t really throw out anything new – so if I recommend it now, it’s only really to catch a glimpse of Dan Radcliffe playing gay and to admire Dane DeHaan’s face. The rest of the movie was pretty average.

TV: Faking It season 1 (2014)

homecoming4.JPGcreators: Dana Min Goodman & Julia Wolov
language: English
length: 8 episodes, 22 minutes each
finished watching on: 11 June 2014

The synopsis for this makes it sound more awful than it actually is. Essentially, two girls are mistaken for lesbians and “outed” to the whole school. They find it makes them popular (huh?) and stick with the lie, to be voted homecoming queens. What the synopsis fails to mention is that one girl quickly develops or realizes genuine feelings for the other, creating a lot of the drama in the story, as the other starts trying to date a boy – although she must do it in secret because the school would “lynch” them for lying about their relationship. It’s quite funny and easy to watch.

In many respects it’s similar the movie GBF, which I also watched recently – particularly that the synopsis sound worse than it is and somebody is forcibly outed by a supposed ally or other member of the LGBT community (I should think most LGBT people know this is something you do not do). It also shares GBF’s main actor as a supporting character, in this case playing the polar opposite of his other character: flamboyant and with many snappy one-liners. The best kind of gay for comedies.

It’s unusual for an American show in that it’s very short, at only eight episodes – but I’d argue that’s a good thing, because it allows it to be almost devoid of filler and able to have a sense of focus and conservation of detail that many shows do not. It sort of takes place in a hyperreal state of being as a result of this – and this is coupled with the odd setting of a high school in Austin that has the reverse social hierarchy compared to the teen flick archetype. Jocks are boring and the weirder you are, the better. I think this is why it’s been so popular online.

Most importantly with a TV show, even though I was only watching it for a few weeks, I looked forward to the day it came out (albeit not as much as for Orphan Black!). I’d recommend it, definitely.

Film #120: Easy A (2010)

Easy-A-Movie-Stills-emma-stone-15356071-1222-817director: Will Gluck
language: English
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 7 June 2014

I think, as with the other chick flicks I’ve watched in the past few months, I was led into this by constantly seeing images of it online, and wanting to find out more. The story in this one is about a young girl in small-town California who lies once and it spirals out of control – a rumour spreads that she’s actually a slut, and she helps out a few of the boys in her class, starting with a closeted gay guy and continuing to the fat nerds, who need their social status bolstered.

It gets even more out of control when she is implicated as a carrier of an STD by one of the Christian boys trying to cover up his relationship with the school counsellor (played by Lisa Kudrow, who I still can’t fully separate from Phoebe Buffay in my mind), and is told from the point of view of a webcast that she makes to finally tell the truth about the whole affair.

It also has a literary bent: “Easy A”, and the motif of her sewing a red A to all her clothes comes straight out of a book she had to read for English class, the title of which escapes me now, a month later. In the book, a woman is forced to wear a red A because she’s an adultress – in this movie, she chooses this fate herself when she chooses to big up her false identity as a slut. It’s an obvious way in which the movie examines the central theme of the double standard between men and women – the men who she supposedly had sex with suffer no consequences of the theoretical sex, while she becomes a social pariah.

Like the other chick flicks I’ve watched recently, it’s excellent in its comedy and delivery, with many funny lines and characters. Her family is especially amusing, I thought. But the story itself, while spot on in its treatment of the double standard, is ridiculous in itself. Like many movies, I feel like she could have dealt with any of the problems she had very easily just by talking to them or her teachers honestly. Problem would have been solved, I’d say. That said, I’d recommend it for the comedy alone.

Book #61: Jumper (1992)

jumper2author: Steven Gould
language: English
length: 344 pages
finished reading on: 6 June 2014

Yet another book supplied by the Humble Bundle. My kindle actually broke midway through reading this, so I can no longer use it at all (there is some hardware problem with the screen) – and it turns out that sending it back to Amazon in the UK and getting a discount new one would be more expensive than just buying a new one in Japan. I haven’t taken the plunge yet – I’d rather focus on making summer travel plans, buying flights and whatnot to far flung places.

As for the book, I partly read it because I saw the movie six years ago, and had heard this was a better story than that of the movie. It concerns a boy who learns he can teleport, and what he decides to do with the power.

It starts with the big guns of child abuse and attempted rape of the main character within the first few pages, just in case you were under any illusion that this book was actually a science fiction story about a boy who can teleport. Indeed, he learns he can teleport by accidentally escaping both situations, finding himself in the local library, a place he always felt safe. From there, he goes to New York, effortlessly robs a bank and sets himself up with a nice apartment. Then he finds a girlfriend, and meets his mother, who had run away from the abusive father too. She’s then killed by Islamic terrorists (spoiler alert), and he spends the latter half of the novel on a manhunt for them round North Africa.

His teleportation power is limited to places he has already been, and a significant portion of the book is the daily grind of travelling from place to new place and figuring out his power. It’s never explained or explored how he got the power. Like in Groundhog Day, it’s just taken for granted that he has it. In the movie, he meets others like him and even some religious nutjobs out to kill him, to make the story more dramatic, but here he seems to be alone – this matches a major theme of the book.

Although the child abuse parts were sensitively handled and explored in due course, a lot of the story felt a bit flimsy. The mother’s death comes out of nowhere, although it’s interesting to see that the panic about plane hijackers existed well before 9/11. Some parts of the book go into too much detail about relatively insignificant things – conservation of detail is not an issue here.

That said, even those parts are written well, and there was some quality to the writing which made it addictive. I finished it even though I had to use the Kindle app on my phone’s tiny screen. It’s good to see an author fully explore a superhuman power and also include hard-hitting issues and portray quite a realistic teenager character. Plus I would quite like that superpower, even though I’m not so much up for the child abuse or terrorist hunting.

As for continuing the series, it’s a possibility, but I have what feels like a million others to finish first, so it’ll have to wait. And don’t let the movie put you off. This is indeed way better.

Film #119: Team America: World Police (2004)

Team-America-World-Police-Movie-Still-13-960x610director: Trey Parker
language: English, and some fake “foreign” languages
length: 98 minutes
watched on: 28 May 2014

This movie came out in 2004, so I guess I must have last watched it then, when it came out in the cinema. I was probably 16. This time, I picked it up in a bargain bucket in an electronics store, interested to watch it again.

I definitely remember it being better than I found it this time. There are a variety of reasons, but I’m willing to bet that chief among them is that I was 16. The humour is the same as that of South Park, by the same creators: crass at best, and downright offensive at worst – exactly what appeals to teenage boys.

It’s also become extremely dated by even this point – it was topical at the time, referencing the Iraq war and September 11 attacks, and explicitly mocking the Bush era War on Terror. Perhaps the situation hasn’t changed all that much, but the talking points are different ten years later.

And as with the genre of parody and satire in general, take away that historical context and it looks like you’ve just made a very self-aggrandizing and openly racist production – after all, the Arabs in the story are mostly terrorists, and speak a shallow parody of Arabic with six words on repeat. I think it’s just how audacious the film is with the racism that keeps me giving it the benefit of the doubt that it’s on the “satirical” side of the thin line it’s straddling.

It could very well have done without the more homophobic parts, though (eg, cocksuckers used as an insult, the cock sucking scene itself, the Actor’s Guild named “F.A.G.”), or the two-minute-long vomiting scene. Those were just unnecessary.

That’s not to say it wasn’t without merit or funny parts, of course. Most of the parts I found the most funny were those where they made jokes out of the fact that the characters are all Thunderbirds-style puppets, such as the way they walk, the “giant panthers” that are actually house cats, the whole sex scene, or the scenes of the main character driving down a regular-sized road. The music’s also funny, I thought. And anything making fun of North Korea is fine in my book, to be honest.

But in the end, I thought a lot of the more offensive parts weren’t justifiable even with it being satirical. It just isn’t clear how much they’re really condemning the attitude of the Americans in the movie. Plus they use an expletive-strewn libertarian argument as the take home lesson at the end of the movie, and I wasn’t buying it. So it’s definitely still funny, but it’s quite offensive too, and as we lose touch with the historical context, it’s only going to get more offensive.

Book #60: Junky (1953)

9781470366377author: William S. Burroughs
language: English and some Spanish
length: 428 minutes (7 hours 8 minutes)
finished listening on: 27 May 2014

The last audiobook I listened to ended with a lengthy Author’s Note that was too boring to finish. This one really took the biscuit with 2 out of seven hours being introductions and appendices. Because it was a relatively short space of time in total, I decided to ride it out, but I felt like it was rather unnecessary, delving into the history of different versions of the book before I’d even started.

Junky is William S. Burroughs’ first novel and by all accounts the most accessibly-written of all of them. It was intended as a memoir, I think, about taking drugs, especially opiates. Originally it was sold as a pulp novel, but promoted by Burroughs’ beatnik friends such as Allen Ginsburg.

Accessibly-written, however, may turn out to be damning with faint praise – while being able to get a candid look into the world of junkies and drug addiction is certainly fascinating, its prose is very dry at times, and reads almost like a narrator of a documentary than someone telling a story. Accordingly, I can remember few significant details of the plot, other than that Burroughs’ ambiguously autobiographical character moves across America and eventually to Mexico, and is constantly at loggerheads with the police. Plus he goes into detail about some of the injustices in the various states’ legal systems, like Louisiana, where something as unquantifiable as being a drug addict in itself was made illegal.

And yet part of the meaning of “accessible” there was that it’s the one novel by Burroughs that follows a story and has a coherent plot – his others tend to follow non-linear narratives or lack one altogether, or they use his trademark cut and paste method to jumble everything up.

I preferred the last audiobook by Burroughs that I listened to, The Wild Boys. It made no sense a lot of the time, but the style was intoxicating and erotic. This felt more repetitive. I think it was worth it altogether though.

Book #59: Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students (2012)

mlarcanumauthors: Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill
language: English with a bit of Spanish
length: 195 pages
finished reading on: 23 May 2014

As is becoming my regular thing nowadays, I got this book via the Humble Bundle. It is quite a short one, and since it’s aimed at children, it was fast-paced and plot-driven and quite easy to read.

In the story, a kid goes to a magic school and learns how to control his powers… it’s obviously trying to be Harry Potter, here. No, scratch that, it’s trying to be an edgier version of Harry Potter; the main character Tomas is a “troubled” boy from Mexico, among other things (like, the school they go to is in some disused military buildings in upstate New York, instead of a castle in the Highlands). His sole power is being able to set fire to things. One of the book’s most annoying habits is having him slip into Spanish in the text – gives international flavour, sure, but I don’t speak Spanish, and while I can understand a few basic sentences and words, anything longer than one word was lost on me (even though most times it was translated soon after). It’s… realistic, I guess, but realism isn’t always a goal authors should aspire to.

The other main character is called VeeVee, of all the toe-curling nicknames, and she’s there to be a Mary Sue and be the perfect foil to Tomas’s troubled macho teenager. She has many more powers than he does, and goes out with her parents to battle enemy monsters in her spare time. She’s kind of a boring character – when your one weakness is your heterosexual attraction to someone you “shouldn’t” be attracted to, I have little interest.

The title hints at a series that starts with this book, but it turns out that this is, at least yet, the only one in the series. Similarly, there seems to be a developed world behind this book that is not explained or explored thoroughly enough – when researching the book online later, I found that someone had mentioned in their review that it’s a kind of tie-in for another series by the same author and may only be interesting for people who had already read that. Perhaps I’m inclined to agree.

In summary, it’s quick and easy to read, but doesn’t go into enough detail about the world it occupies. Instead of this, I’d read something similar but more substantial like Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl.

Book #58: On a Pale Horse (1983)

300x300author: Piers Anthony
language: English
length: 716 minutes (11 hours 56 minutes)
finished listening on: 18 May 2014

This was the next thing I delved into from the Humble Bundle. It’s quite long, as audiobooks go, but that’s not the reason it took me over a month to finish it (I’ve finished longer books in much less time!). I plain didn’t like it after a while. It starts out well, but gets boring and became a chore to continue.

The premise should be exciting: the main character tries to commit suicide after a series of things go wrong for him, but freaks out and shoots Death in the face instead. Thus he himself becomes Death himself, and meets a variety of other “incarnations of immortality” (also the name of the series that this book is the first episode of) including Time, Fate, War, and so on. Satan and God also put their nose in. It’s set in a parallel universe where magic and technology co-exist, which presumably explains the physical existence of these incarnations, and also allows such things as dragons. If it wasn’t written over thirty years ago I’d say it was copying Harry Potter.

Indeed, I was interested for the first few chapters, but it turned into a strange kind of philosophical treatise about the nature of religion and sin. Anthony’s personal philosophy about how sin works is, apparently, that people’s good deeds and bad deeds are literally weighed up on some kind of scales, and if they’re unbalanced, the person will go straight to heaven or hell, and if they’re balanced almost exactly, Death has to step in and personally judge the person’s soul. And if Death’s not sure, they will have to stay in purgatory, and personally complete a sick parody of a tax return to work it all out.

It gets complicated when Christian mythology is referenced. It’s implied that the incarnations are what they are (ie, straight out of Revelations) because Christianity is the dominant religion – sure, in the West! What about all the other big religions? Christianity isn’t dominant for two thirds of the world’s population, after all. It also ignores the messiah part – like, the central part – of Christian doctrine entirely (Jesus is never mentioned, that is), which would kind of negates the whole idea of good deeds and bad deeds being weighed up. The disconnect became clear when I listened to a bit of the author’s note at the end that Anthony actually doesn’t believe in God himself, but then it entirely calls into question his treatment of the atheist character, whose soul simply dissolves into dust and who is outwardly referred to as “strange” by Death. That was a more offputting section than the others because I felt like I was being personally attacked for holding no belief in God.

But that wasn’t the place where Anthony crossed the line; far from it. He crossed the line in his treatment of rape and his idea of what constitutes it. In his world, babies born out of rape inherit the sin of the rape, and are born impure, and have to be reaped by Death instead of going straight to heaven, like the good pure babies. That’s a bit of an ugly idea in itself, but the moment where I almost threw down my iPhone in disgust was when a ten year old kid was impure because he’d been having sexual relations with a grown woman, and the author literally muses that if it’d been a man raping a girl, it would be unambiguously the man committing the sin and the girl would remain free of sin, but the other way round, the woman is doing a favour to the young boy. As if he’s asking, what young boy wouldn’t want to be raped by an older woman? For fuck’s sake.

It’s also just boring, and badly written. The next book in the series is on the next Humble Bundle, which I’ve bought now, but I think I’m just going to skip over it. Don’t read this.