Monday, May 18, 2009

Return to Labyrinth vol. 3

So after a ridiculously long waiting period (it’s been about a year and a half since the release of volume two), the third and penultimate volume of Jake Forbes’ manga-style sequel/spin-off of 1986 cult classic Henson film “Labyrinth” finally hit stores earlier this month, courtesy of Tokyopop. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the movie ever since the time when my age could be represented with a single digit. I love how creative and imaginative it is, and I especially love the fascinating story at its center: a young girl, obsessed with fantasy and fed up with reality, is forced to confront “dangers untold and hardships unnumbered” when her fantasies become real in a very scary way. Basically, after unwittingly sending her baby brother Toby to the kingdom of goblins that live in the Underground, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must solve their dangerous and impossible labyrinth in order to retrieve the baby. She also must match wits and wills with the treacherous and powerful Goblin King (David Bowie). Said king constantly tries to foil her, both by throwing dangers and obstacles in her path and by tempting her with (what he believes to be) her heart’s desires. But Sarah’s resourcefulness and determination to save her brother, as well as the creatures she befriends along the way, help her to reach the center of the Labyrinth, where she finally remembers the magic words that defeat the Goblin King once and for all: you have no power over me. And so Sarah returns home with baby in tow, having grown up a bit from the petulant teenager who went into the Labyrinth and also made some really cool goblin friends along the way.

-->Return to Labyrinth takes place a good while after the events of the film and features an adolescent version of Toby, the baby Sarah rescued, as its main protagonist. Drawn once more into the Labyrinth, Toby finds himself caught up in a very different kind of adventure than what Sarah experienced all those years before. Now, do I love this series like I do the original material? Not hardly. But do I enjoy it? Actually, I really do. I like Jake Forbes’ imaginative creations, and it’s clear that he’s a fan of the film as well. The story of RtL has also improved immensely with each successive volume he’s written. And while Chris Lie’s artwork isn’t particularly to my taste and kind of takes some getting used to, it has kind of grown on me a little bit.

-->There are certain elements of RtL that work better for me than others. I sometimes feel, for example, that the characters’ voices (particularly, and most disappointingly, the voices of the characters from the original film) don’t come through as strongly as they might. On the other hand, Forbes and Lie have together captured perfectly the wonderful world of the Labyrinth itself, as well as the strange and unfathomable creatures that inhabit it. Particularly enjoyable are the two new goblin characters: Spittledrum, the pompous but loyal mayor of Goblin City, and Skub, the scrappy little underdog with a heart of gold. Yet in spite of its merits, this little series won’t have a whole lot of appeal to anyone who isn’t already a diehard fan of the film. Which actually kind of works out because I seriously doubt anyone who’s not a Labby freak like me will even bother with these books at all.

Anyways, getting down to brass tacks, the action of volume three picks up right where volume two left off, and I gotta say eighteen months is an awfully long time to wait for the resolution of a cliffhanger, especially when said resolution is kind of disappointing. Jareth and Sarah come face to face for the first time in all these years aaaaand… she doesn’t recognize him. Of course she doesn’t. I should have known, really, although we don’t find out exactly what’s going on with Sarah until a little later. Fortunately, things are a lot more exciting in the Underground than they are up Above, as Toby discovers the truth about the former king and prepares for his own coronation while contending with enemies from without and within. There’s a lot going on in this volume, but I suspect a lot of it is set up for the fourth and final installment. Which, if we follow the established pattern, should be released in about one hundred years. When it does come out, however, I will undoubtedly be purchasing it. Anybody looking to learn more about this series and its creator should check out Jake Forbes’ blog over at

And now I have a really strong desire to go watch “Labyrinth” again. Fortunately for me I have it on my ipod, soooo that’s what I’ll be doing tonight. :)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dollhouse renewed for 2nd season!

The news that Fox’s Friday night ratings tanker will live to see another day has been greeted with both rejoicing from its small but devoted fanbase and disbelief from the industry speculators who’ve been prognosticating its imminent demise for months. Although the official announcement of Dollhouse’s renewal won’t be made until tomorrow, sources have confirmed that it’s already a done deal. Personally, I can’t say that this (welcome) development came as that big of a shock. In spite of the show’s rocky start and abysmal performance ratings-wise, it’s been pulling in consistently good DVR and Hulu numbers. Plus, the network invested about a zillion dollars in building the show’s amazing mega-set; it’d be a shame to scrap it after a only a measly half season’s mileage. I guess they’re hoping the show’s fanbase will grow enough over the summer for it to do better the second time around. Well, here’s hoping.

So, now’s probably as good a time as ever to address the fact that I haven’t written anything about this show in six weeks. I kept watching it up through last week’s series finale (and patiently monitoring the news releases for hope of its renewal), but I just haven’t had the time or motivation to review. So, I’m just going to treat this as a final wrap-up post for season one, in which I’ll talk briefly about episodes 8-12. Ok, so to sum up the last six episodes of season one of Dollhouse – well, I can’t really do that. It’s just not feasible; they were really, really complicated. There was a lot of really awesome, intriguing stuff going on, but talk about weaving a really tangled web! Instead of trying to produce a thorough summary, I’ll just focus on some of the more salient developments that stand out in my mind when reflecting on the end of the season.

First up, Victor. Let me just say that Enver Gjokaj is too cute for words. He’s pretty much the only active that I find inevitably appealing in all his many personalities. Plus, his performance as Victor in the “in between” state is pitch perfect; more so than any of the other actives he manages to give off less “mind-wiped zombie slave” and more “gentle, childish innocence.” Which of course makes what happens to him at the end all the more tragic. I’m really curious to see what happens to him in season two. He obviously can’t go out on engagements anymore, what with the marring of his (beautiful) face. Will the Dollhouse find a way to “recycle” him like they did with Whiskey (now known as Dr. Saunders)? Or will they simply send him to the Attic? Whatever happens, I hope they keep him around in some capacity, as I really love this actor and this character.

Secondly, Mr. Dominic turns out to be a mole and gets sent to the Attic himself. Whoa, I did not see this one coming. The guy always seemed so devoted (excessively so) to his job as chief of Dollhouse security. Turns out he’s an NSA agent charged with the mission, not of destroying the Dollhouse, but rather of monitoring it for as of yet unknown purposes. When she finds out her longtime associate and right-hand man is actually someone [else’s] inside man, DeWitt demonstrates just how cold and ruthless she can be. Speaking of which, the whole getting sent to the Attic thing turned out to be way more creepy and sinister than I’d initially thought. Really intense scene, that.

Also, Paul Ballard gets a lot more to do in these episodes, particularly towards the end. He discovers that Mellie isn’t really Mellie and uses her to find a way into the Dollhouse. Once inside, he actually finds himself cooperating with Boyd, DeWitt, and Topher in order to track down Alpha, who’s taken Echo. I never really and completely warmed up to Ballard, but he certainly had his moments. I still think his obsession with the Dollhouse, and his obsession with and need to save Echo/Caroline, don’t really make a whole lot of sense, unless of course there’s more to his story that we don’t yet know. Still, I thought it was way cool of him bargain for November’s release at the end, considering his history with “Mellie”, when he could have asked for Caroline. I’m really curious to see if he’ll continue his tentative association with the Dollhouse in season two. It would at the very least give him the opportunity to watch over Echo. Maybe he’ll even become her handler now that Boyd’s replaced Mr. Dominic as chief of security?

As for Alpha, while Alan Tudyk gave a great performance, the character itself kind of underwhelmed me, considering the season-long build-up. I could go into all the reasons why this is, but I’m getting tired and this post is getting long, so I’ll try to curb my enthusiasm. Basically, underneath all the evil (and illogical) machinations and the genius personality compilations, Alpha turns out to be a pretty standard baddie whereas I really though his particularly brand of villainy would be something to write home about. Still, I love Alan Tudyk (whom I literally bumped into in a Starbucks once), and he did a great job with the role.

Overall, I think this show’s got loads of potential and I’m psyched it’s returning for at least one more season. The premise of the show is an extremely difficult one to market and execute, and some of those difficulties definitely manifested themselves in the final product, but it’s still a really unique and fascinating creation. So congratulations to the cast and production crew of Dollhouse on beating the odds and getting renewed. See you next fall.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dead and Gone, latest Sookie Stackhouse release

So the vampire community of northern Louisiana has been getting some good publicity recently. HBO recently released some shiny new stills and promotional videos for the much-hyped sophomore season of the show “True Blood”. Additionally, the latest installment of the series of novels on which the show is based also came out earlier this month. Dead and Gone, the ninth book in Charlaine Harris’ southern vampire mystery series, hit stores almost two weeks ago. However, thanks to these annoying little things called final exams I’ve only just got a chance to track down a copy and zip through it. The verdict? I definitely enjoyed this book, as I did the previous installments. This series is such a guilty pleasure for me. I do have misgivings and reservations, which as a responsible reviewer I will fully disclose, but the series continues to deliver a fun, exciting read with an unusually extensive cast of delightful characters.

I already wrote a general review of this series, so I won’t bother to introduce it thoroughly here. I’ll just say that the Southern Vampire Mysteries, aka the Sookie Stackhouse novels (it kind of bugs me that this series doesn’t have a definitive name), feature a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse who lives in a small town in Louisiana and gets involved with the various local supernatural communities. Some of these communities, such as the vampires and the were-folk, have more or less assimilated into mainstream society. Others, such as the witches and the fairies, haven’t.

While I thoroughly enjoy the alternate universe Harris has created in this series, I often find myself frustrated with her story development (or lack thereof). Each book generally contains one or more stand-alone plotlines, while the series itself doesn’t really boast that much of a big picture, plot-wise. Yet this doesn’t bother me as much as it might; what really carries the series is the ever-expanding cast of colorful characters and complex supernatural politics. Seeing as I’ve stuck with the series this long, I obviously enjoy reading these books and have pretty much committed myself to continuing to do so. Still, with nine books currently published and still no end in sight, the series runs the risk of becoming monotonous, with the same kinds of things happening in every installment. On the other hand, readers who know they like what the series has to offer can pretty much count on it to consistently deliver more of the same. So while the Southern Vampire books definitely fall into the category of “light reading”, I’ve got no major problem with that. I can take my low culture as well as the high any day of the week.

In Dead and Gone, there’s a lot of stuff going on simultaneously. The good people of Bon Temps are dealing with the aftermath of the werewolves’ “coming out” announcement, the Louisiana vamps are adjusting to the recent takeover from Nevada, and the few remaining fairies on this side of the veil are entangled in a bitter and violent power struggle. And once again our telepathic heroine somehow finds herself in the middle of it all. So much for the supernatural political developments; on to the character developments. Sookie starts to mend bridges with her brother Jason while also continuing to get closer to arrogant but charismatic vampire sheriff Eric (although she still stubbornly attributes her affection for him to the blood bond they share.) Bill continues to be a douche (ok, maybe that’s just my personal interpretation) and Quinn turns out to be a sore loser. Oh, and by the end of the book at least one minor but totally awesome character dies. All in all, Dead and Gone provided some very juicy developments to the meandering story of the series, although I would have liked to have seen more of my absolute favorite character (Pam).

It’ll probably be about a year until the next book gets published, but in the meantime there’s the second season of “True Blood” to keep me occupied.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dae Jang Geum, where have you been all my life?

Holy shizzles, maybe I need to start watching more sageuk dramas (period kdramas, typically set during the era of the Joseon dynasty.) I’m a pretty voracious kdrama consumer, but my appetite generally leans pretty exclusively towards the trendy genre. I mean, I’ve dabbled a bit in fusion sageuks, most notably with last year’s action/comedy/hero-story Hong Gil Dong, although that was really just a trendy drama dressed up in traditional garb. As for the only other sageuk I’ve watched, Painter of the Wind, even that can be said to be moderately fusion as well in that it demonstrated a very modern sensibility in both story and execution. Pure sageuks, on the other hand, are played totally straight. (It’s sort of like the difference between A Knight’s Tale and Ivanhoe.) So basically Dae Jang Geum is my first completely bona fide, totally legit, sweepingly epic sageuk drama. My impression? Looks like I’ve been missing out.

There are many people who thoroughly enjoy both sageuk and trendy/fusion dramas, but there are also quite a few purists out there who fall solidly into one camp or the other. Personally, I can see how the trendy stuff might be a lot more accessible to younger, non-Korean viewers. While the shorter trendy dramas tend to be more fast-paced and instantly gratifying, the sageuks are much slower, usually more serious in tone, and obviously require more of an understanding of traditional Korean society and culture. Basically, they don’t translate as well, and they’re typically viewed by a much older demographic. Yet in spite of all this, sageuks are usually the programs with the highest ratings, and the genre’s continuing to thrive along side their more youthful counterparts.

So what prompted me to emerge from my trendy drama comfort zone and foray into the scary world of sageuk? I guess just curiosity. I was curious about Dae Jang Geum in particular because of its insane level of popularity and international success. One of the highest rated dramas ever (53% at one point during its 2003 broadcast), Dae Jang Geum is also credited with contributing to the surge of international interest in Korean pop culture known as the Korean Wave. So I guess I was just curious as to what was so darn great about this show that captured people’s attention so thoroughly.
From the very first few episodes, Dae Jang Geum won me over completely. I still haven’t quite finished the series (I’ve got about six episodes left to go out of the total 54), but I couldn’t wait any longer to write this. The series may not have the fast-paced fun of your typical trendy fare, but it is definitely not at all boring or stuffy. Intense, riveting, exciting, beautiful, heart wrenching? Yes. Boring? No Way. When I first looked into the series I balked at the length of 54 episodes, but once I started watching I actually found myself glad that sageuks run so long because I’ve just been burning through these episodes. When I finish I think I might suffer symptoms of withdrawal. Or maybe DJG will be my gateway drug to sageuks (like Coffee Prince was my gateway drug to trendies.)

Alright, enough rambling. Time to talk about the drama itself. Dae Jang Geum tells the story of a woman named Jang-Geum. The “Dae” from the title refers not to her family name, but to the official title she eventually receives when she becomes the first and only woman to ever serve as primary physician to the king. The drama focuses on her entire life leading up to that achievement. The story includes elements of political intrigue, romance, tragedy, and much more, but at its core Dae JangGeum tells the very intimate story of a single woman’s journey. I only wish I could adequately convey the essence of this epic drama in this summary.

Portrayed by the lovely Lee Young-Ae, Jang-Geum is a woman of uncommon intelligence and talents (first in the royal kitchen, and later as a female physician), but who’s also very passionate, cheerful, and kind. She does have flaws, though. Although in most respects a very humble person, she has a dangerous tendency to be a little too proud in her own abilities. She also struggles to balance her desire for justice and her desire for vengeance.

Ji Jin-Hee plays Min Jung-Ho, a scholar-official of the upper class and Jang-Geum’s main love interest. While maybe not the most complex character ever written, he's definitely got the whole white-horse-riding-romantic-hero thing down pat. If I had to use one word to describe his character it would be dashing. His romance with Jang-Geum was very sweet (and even tear-inducing at several points). And all this accomplished without even a single on-screen kiss in the whole drama. Yeah, it might seem weird to have this sweeping, epic romance without any actual smooching, but then again how many kissing scenes are there in Jane Austen’s novels, considered to be some of the most romantic in the English language? It’s the same in DJG as in an Ausen novel: the implications of subtle glances and slight touches are enough to evoke pretty strong feelings such that when an actual embrace comes along it feels like the ultimate expression of passionate love.
Hong Ri-Na plays Jang-Geum’s greatest rival in the palace, Choi Geum-Young. Geum-Young’s the type of character who isn’t really villainous at heart, but who doesn’t have the backbone to be good when circumstances force her down a path of evil. She’s a very lonely person, and when Jang-Geum wounds her pride in a lot of ways she takes refuge in her family, who just so happen to be as villainous and power-hungry as they come. Kyeon Mi-Ri gives a great performance as Lady Choi, Geum-Young’s aunt and the head of the Choi Axis of Evil. Lady Choi’s one of the most nefarious, unscrupulous characters in the history of everything, but even she has rare moments of, if not of true remorse for her sins then of regret for the fact that she “had” to commit them. She bitterly and resentfully regrets that certain people commit the sin of refusing to submit to her authority, and thereby making it necessary for her to eliminate them.
The king (king Jungjong, played by actor Im Ho) is a pretty minor character up until the later part of the series. He’s a very gentle and honest man, but on the whole too mild and indecisive to be a truly strong ruler. There are lots of other characters in the series that I really love as well, but I just can’t list them all here, and I’ve already rambled on too much. I guess I’ll just conclude kind of lamely and say that this drama is really great and that it’s definitely made me want to check out more sageuks in the future.

Finally, I’ll just post this clip from episode 16. It’s a really beautiful scene in which Jang-Geum sees the ocean for the first time. Her adoptive father takes her to there to cheer her up when she’s depressed and they play in the water together, and then they run into … Min Jung-Ho!

Sand Chronicles continues to impress in vol. 5

Ooh, this series is really good. But before I gush about it, let me first just say that sometimes I would really like to kill whoever writes the summaries on the back of these manga volumes. Case in point:

"Shika will stop at nothing to steal Daigo from Ann. And the competition ramps up when an attractive girl resurfaces from their past. Meanwhile, Fuji patiently waits to win Ann from Daigo. But who do Ann and Daigo want to be with …?"

Does that sound like something you’d be interesting in reading? Honestly, this summary makes it sound as though Sand Chronicles were chock full of mindless, ditzy fluff when in truth the story focuses on very real and serious issues. If someone unfamiliar with the series picked up this volume in the store they’d have no idea, judging from this description, that they were holding one of the more mature and poignant shoujo titles out there. In fact, Sand Chronicles often reads a lot more like josei than shoujo, but since its main characters are adolescents I guess that’s the age group it’s marketed towards. Then again, they (the characters) have been aging pretty progressively throughout the series thus far, so who knows where they’ll end up by the end. (I think it’s ten volumes long.) In any case, notwithstanding the stupid and misleading summary on the back, Sand Chronicles vol. 5 continues to impress and engage me. I sped through this installment all too quickly, and can hardly wait till September for volume 6.

This volume contains two lengthy chapters that focus on the summer and winter of Ann’s 17th year, respectively. It’s really heartbreaking to see her and Daigo fail to maintain the happy, easy relationship they once had, especially since they clearly love each other a lot. (Maybe too much? Ann even says at one point that her feelings were out of control.) But Ann’s still pretty fragile, and Daigo just can’t fix her issues for her no matter how much he wants to. He’s completely devoted to her, but she can see the strain she’s putting on him and I think that’s why she leaves him so abruptly. Ever since her mother’s suicide, she’s basically clung to Daigo and depended completely on him to get through all her troubles. And while she clearly loves him, she’s never going to be able to heal or grow emotionally if she never learns to stand on her own two feet. And so even though separation from him is painful, I think it’s good for her in the long run. Poor Daigo gets a pretty raw deal though. I think this is a case of love just not being enough to keep two people together.

Meanwhile, Fuji (depicted on the cover with Ann) isn’t really featured very prominently in this volume, especially compared to the last few chapters. I’m still kind of rooting for him, though. Don’t get me wrong, I like Daigo plenty. I just find Fuji to be a much more interesting character. Plus, he’s way more my type. Shika – what to say about Shika? She’s dealing with her own demons and stumbling pretty hard along the way, but I think there’s hope for her to grow into a really healthy, happy girl. She’s in a really difficult position because her status really isolates her from her peers, and her brother’s been absent from her life physically and emotionally, so she doesn’t really have anyone to support her. But I’ve got a suspicion that she’s much tougher than Ann deep down, and that’s she’ll pull through this in time.

I also just want to say that although I’ve emphasized the heavier, more serious aspects of Sand Chronicles, the series does have humor as well and some of it’s relatively light in tone. The serious stuff is the main focus, but it’s got a broad spectrum as well. The thing I really love about this series is that it always feels very real. Sure, it’s dramatic and all that, but the emotion always comes across as complex, genuine, and deep. Plus, all the side characters and minor characters are charmingly three-dimensional, which also contributes to the ‘real’ feeling as well. We’ve got the Tokyo crew and the Shimane crew, and they’re all great.

Ugh, I can’t believe volume six doesn’t come out until September. What’s up with that? Some of Viz’s other shoujo titles are released every other month (Skip Beat!, Nana). I’d understand if Sand Chronicles wasn’t very popular, but it is. Oh, well, go figure.