Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Olympics go Pokemon

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (Vanoc) for the 2010 Olympic Games unveiled the official mascots for the Winter Games today – a trio of Pokemon.

No, the mascots are not technically part of the Japanese children’s animated TV series/card game/video game/toy/etc mega-franchise. They just look that way. Much to the chagrin of many of us here in Greater Vancouver, BC, and across Canada. I wouldn’t be surprised if folks in other parts of the world are as disappointed as we local yokels. And if not now, they probably soon will be.

The three critters are representations of (inspired by? mockeries of?) figures from First Nations folklore here in BC. They are:

Miga – a sea-bear – a creature, as I understand it, that lives as an orca in the water but can come onto land where it then turns into a Spirit Bear (Kermode bear – a very rare, naturally white, non-albino black bear).

Sumi – an animal guardian spirit combining elements of the orca (represented by its hat), the thunderbird and the bear.

Quatchi – a Sasquatch (also known as Bigfoot) – who, incidentally, wants to be a goalie on a hockey team.

And if three A-line beasties aren’t enough, technically there’s four of them – they have a sidekick: Mukmuk, a marmot (a small animal, akin to a groundhog, eking out a living on the mountainsides of Vancouver Island and currently on the Endangered Species List).

I don’t have a problem with the Olympics gang borrowing their mascots from native folklore (I’d be interested to hear what our aboriginal people have to say about the matter though). What I do have a problem with is how these things were drawn. They don’t look like anything – or at least, they don’t look like anything outside of your standard after-school anime series battling monsters roster! To put it another way, one of my coworkers said she thinks they look like Hello Kitty characters. How is that unique? How does that in any way distinguish an Olympic Games mascot? How is unidentifiable artwork representative of BC or First Nations culture? How does the cheap drawing-style let us know what the hell these things are supposed to be?

Why didn’t the designers contracted by the Games actually stick to the original concepts as portrayed in native art? At least that way we’d be able to get a sense that Miga’s supposed to be a synthesis of whale and bear, rather than something that could be a penguin or a cat or Pepe La Peu’s surreal anime alter-ego!

I heard someone from the Vanoc crew try to justify the design today by claiming that the mascots had to be “cute”. Marketers will tell you the big push for the mascots is from 6 to 8-year-olds. If the kiddies want the mascot toys or want to see the things wandering around the Games venues in person, they’ll twist Mom & Dad’s arms to buy the merchandise (funding the Games) and/or to go to the actual Games (funding the event and increasing the positive optics of full stands and hopefully spreading hype). But that could be accomplished by mascots that actually look like something. Cute? There are hundreds, if not thousands of “cute” portrayals of animals, real and mythical, in art and TV and movies all over the world that actually look like recognizable animals. Bears? How about Yogi & Booboo, or Baloo? Any designer/artist actually worth their over-inflated Olympic-contractor salary could have taken a 5 second look at some original aboriginal art portraying these creatures and given us “cute” versions that would be original and worth looking at.

Thanks, Vanoc. You’ve blown my tax dollars on vaguely fuzzy-looking blobs. Hairy cat turds with smiley faces. They’re not just Pokemon, they’re lazy Pokemon-wannabe attempts.

More on the Tragedy of "The Commons"

If you’ve followed the comments section of my previous post and its review of “The Commons” by Matt Hughes, you’ll want to check out SF Signal. John’s got a great review of the book and I continue our discussion in his comments section. I still disagree with his contention that it’s a good book – the characterization just isn’t strong enough to warrant liking it. That being said, John makes some good comments about just how interesting Hughes’ Commons is as a setting.

Another good review of “The Commons”, especially if you disagree with me, is John Clute’s (different John) Excessive Candour column over on scifi.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two Years and Three Reviews

It was cold, foggy night two years ago that I launched this blog. Two years full of reviews, rants, links, whines, bits of shameless adulation, bad jokes, occasional hopelessly local observations, head-scratching and naval-gazing, infrequent posting, and, once in a great while, a blurb worth reading (maybe), and I’m still here.

More surprisingly, you’re still bothering to read this. I thank you. It’s been great having you along for the ride.

In honour of the two-year anniversary of bloginhood, I figured I’d serve you a three-course meal of quick book reviews. (Okay, it’s not really an anniversary treat, it’s actually because these books have been sitting on my desk for a while now waiting to be reviewed and I just haven’t got around to it. Might as well do it now.) No spoilers on the list of ingredients.

“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff

I gotta thank the boys at SF Signal for this one. Read a review on their site and, based on that, picked it up when I came across it in Seattle at Eliot Bay Books (a signed copy made this quick buy decision that much quicker!). A good, brisk read perfect for a plane ride, long haul on a ferry or a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book tells the story (and retells and retells again) of Jane Charlotte and her involvement in the clash between two very secret, very powerful organizations – one dedicated to stopping evil doers (the “Bad Monkeys”) at all costs, the other to spreading death and mayhem. The story is alternately funny, a head trip and creepy (especially the stencil of the monkey on the cover). SF Signal got it bang-on when they said (at least I think it was their review) that Ruff’s book has a very Philip K. Dick-ian feel to it (with a bit of “The Prisoner” and perhaps a dash of James Bond and “La Femme Nikita”). Definitely worth the read.

“The Line Between” by Peter S. Beagle

This collection of well-crafted tales was thoroughly enjoyable. Typical Beagle, they focus on matters of the heart and exploring (sometimes with cynicism) what it means to be human. The story “Two Hearts”, the sequel to “The Last Unicorn”, was the highlight, although, for me, the sailors’ tragedy “Salt Wine” was probably the runner-up. Another book worth buying.

“The Commons” by Matthew Hughes

Published as a single novel under the Robert J. Sawyer Books, “The Commons” is actually a fixup, an amalgamation of short stories previously published. Problem is, there isn’t any smoothness in the transitions from one chapter/story to the next. The chapters revolve around the adventures of Guth Bandar, a noonaut, or explorer of the human collective unconscious – one of the last frontiers for our species in the very, very distant future (so far, in fact, that the sun has begun to turn orange) where humanity has pretty much done and seen everything and has now settled in for the long wait. What Guth finds during his treks into the Jungian wilds, is that the collective unconscious is aware and is intent on manipulating his life to suit its purpose. Crazy and often unpleasant adventures ensue involving mythical and psychological archetypes. I’d have to give this book a resounding “meh”. I neither hated it or loved it. It was okay, not a complete waste of time, but I certainly could have been spending that time on one of the other items in my teetering, ever-increasing new book pile or enjoying a favourite old chestnut. Beyond being indifferent to Hughes’ plot (or plots), I was even disappointed with Sawyer’s introduction to the book. Rather than saying anything of interest about the story, Sawyer devotes the better part of two pages to giving us a history of fixups. That’s not why I bother to read intros. Intros are meant to give the reader some insight into the story or a key implication of it, or about the author and how and why he presents things to us (in the following story or other works), not to talk ad-nauseum about a literary/publication device. This intro isn’t even a case of missing the forest for the trees – it’s looking up the definition of the word forest in the dictionary instead of bothering to look at said forest or trees. I’m not happy about having to say this either, because normally I enjoy Sawyer’s commentary on books he’s reading or literature in general, or pretty much anything. In contrast, an intro that does work very well is Mike Resnick’s intro to Nick DiChario’s “A Small and Remarkable Life” – which is also published under the Robert J. Sawyer Books label. At any rate, while I don’t regret reading “The Commons”, I do regret buying the hard cover. Must’ve been one of those archetypes Bandar has to deal with now trying to control my mind and making my shell-out instead of waiting for the paperback.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Star Trek" vs "Star Wars" Debate Rehashed - This Time Courtesy of CBC

CBC radio’s “Sounds Like Canada” hosted a debate on Friday (Nov. 16) on that classic sci-fi uber-geek grudge match: “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars”.

Author Robert J. Sawyer took to the field on behalf of Trek. Defending the honour of “Star Wars”: Calgary IT systems analyst Devon Cameron. The debate had its moments, although I found the host to be a bit of a dweeb and he and his producers could have chosen a better sound clip from “Star Wars”.

At any rate, the show’s been saved as a podcast on the Mothercorp’s site. So, for your enjoyment (or copious eye-rolling), here’s the link to CBC’s “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars” debate.

"Beowulf" Worthy of the Legend

We just got home from watching Robert Zemeckis’ animated “Beowulf” tonight (in Imax 3D!) and we’re still stunned. This is a big, savage, beautiful to look at (especially the exquisitely digitally-rendered Angelina Jolie), terrifying and yet thoughtful picture worthy of the legacy of the ancient Anglo Saxon poem.

There’s no point in summarizing the plot – chances are, you’ve read the original, or read or seen one of the legion of books and films re-imagining it or inspired by the tale in some way, or you’ve at least heard about it and get the basic gist. In fact, because the story’s so well known, it’s almost hard to spoil the movie by talking about it. And yet, because this rendition varies from the original in some ways (like Grendel’s origin) which add nuances that give the film a more powerful dramatic and intellectual impact. While it explodes onto the screen right from the start with Grendel’s truly frightening attack on Hrothgar’s mead hall and storms along through Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, it also takes time to season itself with quiet moments of introspection and emotional confrontations between characters, making this very much a grown-up story. (I shudder to think what kind of mockery or videogame it would have turned into if a director like Bruckheimer had gotten a hold of it.)

But it’s interesting to make a brief comparison of this film to other somewhat recent versions of the story. Unlike 2005’s underappreciated gem “Beowulf and Grendel” (directed by Sturla Gunnarsson), where Gerard Butler’s title hero was very much a man, and one not overly fond of a tough-guy reputation at that, Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (and, to be fair, actor Ray Winstone) have kept their Geatish hero very close to the original in terms of superhuman strength and endurance, and insured that he remained true to the typical Norse warrior mindset of the time that one had to help spread the myth of one’s prowess by boasting frequently and largely.

That being said, Zemeckis’ Beowulf is not just a one-dimensional big lug. Despite his larger-than-life abilities and antics, he is a man painfully aware of his own shortcomings (as some of those around him are also aware). It is this tension within the character, along with other plot devices like Grendel’s origin, that make Zemeckis’ movie very, very similar to Parke Godwin’s exceptional 1995 novel “The Tower of Beowulf”. In fact, I wonder if Zemeckis, Gaiman or Avery have read Godwin’s rendition and were influenced by it. I’m not alleging anything underhanded here, not at all, just curious as to whether they ever came across the book and if so, what sort of impact it might have had on them. In fact, despite the groaning pile of new novels scattered around my study, this movie has tempted me to go back and read “The Tower of Beowulf” again (as well as the original poem – which is pretty much a given).

Hats off to all of the actors too, for breathing life into these believable characters, both the human and the inhuman. That being said, the one performance I haven’t made up my mind about yet is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar. Hopkins plays the old king as jovial, frequently drunk and silly, somewhat weak and ultimately tragic. Not like the kind of forceful personality one would imagine a person would have to be to rise through bloody years to become a wealthy Norse king. No, Hopkins’ Hrothgar felt to me more like the manager of a small bank branch in a small-to-mid-sized out-of-the-way town, or kind of like old Fezziwig in Dickins’ “A Christmas Carol”. By contrast, Stellan Skarsgard, in “Beowulf and Grendel”, played a Hrothgar beset by demons (both internal and external), drink and the end of his people’s traditional way of life, but you could believe that this was a man who was once, and still remained on some level, very dangerous. To paraphrase an old Shakespearean prof from my university days, Skarsgard taught me things about Hrothgar. Hopkins, on the other hand… I don’t know. I normally enjoy his performances (especially as Van Helsing in Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), but I think I’ll have to watch this movie again to make up my mind.

But that won’t be a tough sell. Not only is “Beowulf” worth paying full price to see at the theatre, it’s worth paying full price to see again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reaper Goes 2001

First of all, folks, sorry there weren’t any posts last week. I was sick as a dog for more than a week and I’m only now up to snuff to unleash my inanities upon the largely indifferent web. Anyway…

Did anyone catch the opening of tonight’s episode of “Reaper” with the coworker named “Frank Poole”?

I’m trying to figure out if it’s a deliberate reference to “2001: A Space Odyssey” or just a coincidental choice of names by the writers. Not that I think this guy’s destined to become a regular character with a speaking role, or that he gets flicked out into deep space or anything, I’m just wondering if there’s a pattern of classic sci-fi references in this show that I’ve just been embarrassingly oblivious to.

The last time I remember name-dropping like that it was in “Babylon 5” where monikers like Asimov, Clarke and Bester were popping up every other episode. But that was a very genre-focused show, where “Reaper” is clearly gearing itself towards a more main-stream audience.

I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised at SF referencing in a show that Kevin Smith’s involved with. Although this simple use of a name is far more of a light touch than the scene dissections and character comparisons in the View Askew movies.

Has anyone else out there caught any other SF allusions in this surprisingly entertaining little show? If so, send me a note. Let me know which subtle or not-so-subtle salute to SF you’ve caught on “Reaper” and we’ll see if this is a regular feature or a one-off.