12 September 2006

Words and Pictures

Quick roundup of books and other media I've been experiencing in the last couple of weeks...


I've now finished Pete Rollins' book How (Not) to Speak of God, which I'd recommend highly to anyone with a sincere interest in christian mysticism and how it relates to a contemporary urban context. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's changed my life, but it's furthered some of the changes which were taking place there anyway.

I also finished James Chapman's Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, which was more of a disappointment. Chapman's forays into television history are very interesting (he's gleaned a lot of information about Doctor Who from the BBC archives, as well as biographical and other material relating to the main players in its development), but his criticism is rather pedestrian. It's not tainted by fan politics in the way I felt Kim Newman's was, but the comments on the individual stories rarely rise above the level of received opinion. I'd have preferred to read a full-length history of the TV programme, without the kind of commentary I can read by the bucketload on the web.

I'm still working my way through Something More and Ada or Ardor. Good though they both are (particular in the case of the Nabokov), I am rather hoping that I finish one of them soon, so I can move onto something a bit more lively.


B. and I have been watching the first season of Frasier, after she found the videos going cheap on eBay. Despite the distracting laughter track (not present on the British broadcast unless I'm very much mistaken) I've been enjoying it a lot. There are occasional juddery episodes this season as the scriptwriters commit the Friends error of thinking that we care about the characters when they're not making jokes, but it remains by far the best U.S. sitcom I've ever seen.

The remarkable thing is how appalling the whole concept sounds on paper. It's a spinoff from Cheers, you see, with this neurotic psychiatrist -- and his brother, who's also a psychiatrist, and even more neurotic than he is! And their father's crusty and cantankerous, but keeps the family together with his homespun blue-collar wisdom. Plus there's a comedy English nurse! And a funny dog!

It ought to be absolutely dismal. Somehow, though, it ended up with scalpel-sharp, witty, character-driven scripts and some brilliant comedy performances.

Kelsey Grammar is uneven as Frasier himself -- good when the material's subtle, but pretty terrible when it requires him to ham it up. But Jane Leeves completely salvages Daphne by playing her entirely straight, as a working-class Mancunian whose naturalism anchors even the weirdest things the character's required to say and do. And David Hyde Pearce is incapable of opening his mouth as Niles -- in fact, it's rare to see him twitch a muscle -- without being chest-hurtingly hilarious. Even Moose the dog as Eddie the dog is impressively well-trained.


The less said about M Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water the better, really. I actually rather enjoyed The Village and (until the last ten minutes) Signs, despite their being clearly not in the same class as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable... but dear, oh dear.

The plot's arbitrary and free-associating (Shyamalan seriously seems to think that, because it's fantasy, he can make it up as he goes along, rather than having to state his ground-rules early on and stick to them), the characters are cardboard cutouts (and as for casting himself as the tortured, neglected genius whose writing will one day usher in a new era of peace and enlightenment...) and the ending abandons Shyamalan's trademark "Ooh, that's clever" (or, in the case of Signs, "Good grief, does he really think that's clever?") in favour of a resounding "Er... so is that it?".

There are two good ideas in the film: the monster that can lie completely flat and has grass growing from its back, and the bodybuilder (played by a thoroughly wasted Rico from Six Feet Under) who's developing only one side of his body. The former is swiftly abandoned in favour of generic evil-dog action, the latter is a throwaway with no relevance to the plot or anything else.

Very much not recommended.

What else? ...Oh yes, I watched Pitch Black for the first time the other day, and was favourably impressed.

It has a reputation as a rather dire no-brain action flick, which I don't think is warranted at all. Vin Diesel is intrinsically ridiculous, it's true, but his character has more than the standard one dimension, and some of the others even aspire to three. The cinematography's clever and textured, and the setting appears to have been worked out by someone with both a modicum of intelligence and an interest in serious S.F. (This may be explained, if Wikipedia's any guide, by the story being loosely based on Asimov's short story "Nightfall".)

There's even a positive Islamic character, whose journey of faith we're meant to sympathise with. It's difficult to imagine that happening in a big-budget action film these days.

So... surprisingly better than I expected. Although not good enough to give me any inclination towards watching the sequel.

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