Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: The Films of 2011

Well, since I only started this review blog a few months ago and have only done a few reviews, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about what happened in 2011 and what to look forward to in 2012 (which will be a separate post).

Though I did a lot of reading in 2011, reading is not necessarily something I do "by the year." Very few of my 'reads' this year were actually published in 2011. That's not to say that I didn't pick up the new books in a few series or grabbed copies of the books everyone was abuzz about, but since music and reading come to me from all decades (and I have a lot of gaps to fill) this post will focus on film. Film is something I enjoy keeping up with and it's not uncommon for me to anticipate a movie long before the trailer is released.

There are already many great blogs and articles out there talking about the best films of 2011. I'd recommend this list if you appreciate the more artistic films and this list if you fall somewhere in the middle of artistic and commercial. Both of these writers (and others) have already done a fine job of giving a summary for the year and this post is not an attempt to duplicate that or to give a comprehensive list of everything good for this year. But for me...

I saw a lot of films this year. My personal favorites were Moneyball, Super 8, and Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows: Part II. 

Hugo, One Day and Drive remain on my mixed feelings list but I think they are good on an artistic level and worth seeing for yourself.

It was a big year for comic book adaptions with X-Men: First ClassThe Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, Thor, and Captain American...all that I saw were entertaining but a bit cheesy as the genre tends to be, though I really enjoyed X-Men and Thor was a favorite off my husband.

My list of "for fun" movies that I very much enjoyed regardless of how commercial they were include Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (which I thought was an improvement on the previous two before it), Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (more entertaining than the first for me), Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Cowboys & Aliens.

There are always a lot of films I intend to see but don't make it to and I have every intention of getting to all of the following as soon as possible.

Still on my list to see: The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Captain America, Mission Impossible IV, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of TinTin, J. Edgar, War Horse, The Help

There were many many other movies released this year (Cars 2, Fast5, Scream 4, Hangover 2, Ides of March, many romantic comedies, Unknown, Arthur, Kung Fu Panda 2, etc.---that just weren't on my priority list of movies to see) and I am also leaving out many movies I did see (such as Transformers, I Am Number 4, Hanna, Breaking Dawn: Part I, Gnomeo and Juliet, Reel Steel, etc.) that I just don't have any strong feelings about or maybe just don't have the energy to write about.

I suppose there were dozens of movies out this past year. There were many that I missed, or ignored altogether. I feel as if I've only scratched the surface here and I will undoubtedly have more to say once the Oscar nominations are released for 2011.

And here I was thinking 2012 was going to be the most epic year ever for movies and in retrospect 2011 was full to the brim with highly anticipated films.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Released November 2011
Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Ah, it's been a little while since I posted a review. This is not because I haven't been reading, seeing movies or listening to music. I guess it is just because I haven't felt strongly enough about things to write about them. However, I've been anticipating this movie for quite some time so I felt it couldn't let it go without a quick review.

I wish that I had read the book (The Invention of Huge Cabret by Brian Selznick) ahead of time. I've heard a lot of really wonderful things about it. And it did win the Caldecott. I'm also interested in Wonderstruck, his latest release which is being considered for both the Caldecott and the Newbery. He seems to be an innovative writer/illustrator for Children's literature and I have both books on my list. I usually prefer to read the book before the movie but my intrigue with this movie was less about the book and more about the director.

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. He's been on the scene since the 1950s and 1960s but started getting more significant recognition in the 1970s. My Scorsese repertoire doesn't begin until 1990 which is the year Goodfellas was released (perhaps his most famous film). Granted I was only 3 years old the year it came out, but I filled the gap in later. In 2002 he released Gangs of New York and I have been faithfully going to the theaters for his works ever since. The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island---all favorites of mine. I've also heard great things about Boardwalk Empire, his HBO tv series, and he is currently working on a Frank Sinatra film that I am excited about. All of that to say, I follow his career and I was surprised to see Hugo on his list of projects. 

This movie just did not seem to fit into his usual repertoire. For starters (or maybe the only reason I felt that way) was the fact that it's an adaption of a children's book. Yet the feel of the movie was still very "Scorsese." The movie wasn't at all what I expected, but then, I had nothing to go off of but a few trailers. I love Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee, and the children were chosen well. It was well-filmed, well-acted, well-directed, and well-written.  Basically, overall it was a success. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it on the nominations list for the Oscars. That being said, for me it moved very slowly and even dragged a bit. Did I mention that I saw it in 3D? Completely unnecessary (as is the case with most movies in 3D). I guess I feel that while it was a good film, I can't see it appealing to kids. It's a children's book adaption so I feel like it should have had some appeal to children. My fear is that if I got antsy and bored at times, then there's little hope for the kids to stay engaged the entire film.

From a film-makers perspective, it was fantastic. From an entertainment standpoint it both suceeded on some levels and failed on others. Many will enjoy the film, and many will not. I feel that the general populous is not going to embrace Hugo. As for me, I enjoyed it, but probably will not add it to my collection. Still, I can't deny the merit of the work.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Music Review: Odd Soul

Album: Odd Soul
Artist: Mutemath
Released: October 2011

Mutemath's fan base seems to span a lot of very different sorts of people and artists in many different genres. It's probably because they're talented. From song writing, lyrics, and production to an incredible live show---they seem to have the whole package. There is no band that is universally agreed upon to be "good" but Mutemath comes about as close as you can get in this day and age. Talent will always be subjective to the listener and their taste. As for me, I loved this album. I liked their first album and the creativity they exuded in their videos and tours. The second album was a disappointment. But this album, their third, is everything the second should have been. 

The style is different enough from the day to day to peak interest from first listen. The production is excellent. I've very much enjoyed with album, especially their title track "Odd Soul".

I can recommend this album to anyone without preface. That's pretty rare. Definitely check this album out. 


Monday, October 17, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Released September 2011
Directed by: Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller doesn't seem to make a lot of movies, but when he does, oh man does he do it right. The only other movie I've seen of his was Capote which was also excellent and also featured Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

I thought Moneyball was an excellent movie, especially for sports fans. It was interesting, filmed well with good acting on the part of Pitt and Hoffman, and more accurate than most "true story" films tend to be even if it still took some dramatic license. I honestly loved it so I don't have much else to say about it except: Go see it. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Speak

Written by: Laurie Halse Anderson

I'm not sure how well known this book is---it seems to have earned some recognition and it was turned into a movie so I imagine I'm just a bit behind in the ball game here. I picked it up on a paperback table at Barnes and Noble for new editions. Strangely enough, with no prior knowledge of the book, I read the back cover and was hooked. I liked the premise and I had to see how it ended, so I bought it impulsively.

I had it finished within 24 hours. I'm not sure if it's just a quick read or if I'm just getting to be a faster reader but I really liked it and me finishing a book that quickly is unprecedented. It is an angsty teenage coming of age story nuanced with a lot of serious realities. Despite the fact that I had nothing truly in common with the character, I identified with her. It was so honest and felt so real. Her writing style was a little different and somewhat vague on descriptions which was a little distracting at times for me, but overall she was successful.

All I can say without spoiling the story for others is that I thought the story was very beautiful.

When I found out it was turned into film in 2004 I got a little excited. Then I found out the Kristen Stewart played the main character. Honestly...I can see her being this character, but I still was disappointed since I don't really respect Kristen Stewart as an actress. She's always rubbed me the wrong way. Still, outside of Twilight her attempt seems to be to do difficult roles...so...good luck Kristen. If I see the movie I'll probably review it. Until then...read the book.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Movie Review: Drive

Released September 2011
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Okay, we saw the movie Drive this past weekend and I thought I'd post a quick review. This movie received good reviews from critics, was exciting enough of a concept for my husband to agree to go, and has one of my favorite actresses: Carey Mulligan. So I was looking forward to seeing it.

Drive was filmed well, great cinematography. There were a lot of shots and symbolism that I found to be incredibly well done and artistic. The acting was also pretty good although there wasn't a ton of dialogue. The style of the film was actually kind of a throw back to the 80s. I'm not a fan of 80s pop culture, style, or film in general (there are a few gems of course) so the stylized writing, the soundtrack, etc. were really not doing it for me. That style may evoke an entirely different feeling for someone who is nostalgic about the 80s. Goslings jacket in the film carried heavy symbolism and was very reminiscent of the 80s. I could see the jacket becoming iconic, it reminded me a little of Rebel Without a Cause. That being said, I doubt it will become iconic because the movie seems to have failed on some levels. It was not a crowd pleaser. Most people seemed to leave confused or annoyed. The actual story was lacking. It was predictable but not satisfying. It was slow with a lot of dead silence on screen which was an artistic choice that made it a little bit boring at times. Despite the violence which was very gorey, the film came across as slow-paced and unexciting in general.

I've been mulling over this film trying to decide if I like it or not for days and I haven't really made up my mind yet. What does that say about it? It clearly had some very good elements or I'd just call it a terrible film---I can't bring myself to call it a terrible film when it succeeded on so many levels. Yet, I can't say I enjoyed it either and I know it won't make it into my collection. I'll probably never see it a second time. Mixed feelings.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: Mockingjay

Written by: Suzanne Collins

Well I finished the trilogy. I've been meaning to write my review so this isn't super fresh on my mind. I liked the book, I like the series a lot. I found that this was my least favorite of the three. I've heard all sorts of different feelings about series...everyone seems to love the first one, the second and third are mixed. For me, I liked them all but progressively less as I went. I was still excited and a little addicted, and I am satisfied with how it came together. I guess I was just hoping for an ending a little more mind blowing. As I sat reading the story I tried to come up with my own ending and I really couldn't think of anything that wouldn't be nuanced. The concept for the Hunger Games was a fabulous one, but a brilliant ending that leaves you breathless and deep in thought---those are hard to come by. A writer has to be truly brilliant and rare to pull something like that off. Collins ending for the series was fine, just not mind blowing. 

But hey, you know they must be pretty good if I can get my husband to read AND finish them.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Catching Fire

"Catching Fire"
Written by: Suzanne Collins

Yep, that's right. I'm going to review each book in The Hunger Games trilogy one at a time (and as I finish them for that matter). I'd probably have a better perspective if I reflected on them as a whole but I like to document my honest first impressions after reading.

I was most worried about book two since it seems to be most peoples least favorite. Was is because I had low expectations that I found it so addicting? Book one was great, no doubt, but I found book two equally as addictive---maybe more so. The entire book kept me hooked and practically shaking with excitement at Katniss's most defiant moments throughout. As is often the case with a middle story, the end was a bit ubrupt. It didn't come together quite as well as the first but helped explain the discontent with the book that I did not at all understand until the last page. I can understand why some people would be less drawn to the book as a stand alone story when it ended so quickly. Perhaps the ending was a bit weak, but it didn't bother me because I knew the third was waiting patiently to wrap the story up.

Still, so far this series has not disappointed me. Yes, it's complete "up my alley" so I may be more enthusiastic than it's due, but I absolutely love it.

As a side note, now that I'm attached to the characters, I let myself check out the cast of the upcoming film to see what I thought about them. I'm skeptical. There are a few characters that I think "Yes, that totally works" like for instance Donald Sutherland as President Snow or Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. In fact, most all the adults seem like good choices. The only one I'm on the fence about is Haymitch being played by Woody Herrelson, but I think it could work. It'll be interesting to see his interpretation of Haymitch. While Prim seems casted well, the other kids are the casting I'm most skeptical about. After all, they carry the story. My first reaction to the casting for Katniss was "Nononono!" but after further review, I think it may be okay. I'm a little upset about the casting for Gale and Peeta...not sure I believe in the acting skills of these kids. But...at the end of the day...we'll just have to wait and see. They could completely surprise me and they do look the part. The only casting choice that I am truly upset about is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. Cinna is one of my favorite characters and I don't think Lenny Kravitz has any business acting. For him to win me over as Cinna will take a small miracle.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games

"The Hunger Games"
Written by: Suzanne Collins

Okay so the short version of this review is: I LOVED THIS BOOK!

Over a year ago, my best friend Leah recommended The Hunger Games trilogy to me thinking I would like it. It was post apocolyptic/dystopian (my favorite genre) and supposedly one of those series intended for youth that ends up being better than a lot of adult literature. I went out a bought the first book a couple weeks later. And there it sat, collecting dust on my book shelf for months upon months. 

I was just too excited about other books and I kept putting it off. Then about a month or so ago, suddenly everyone was talking about these books. I still put it off but I felt I needed to make it a priority soon since I couldn't participate in any of the conversations I was walking into (which were full of praise for the books). Then, the final straw: I saw a movie trailer for The Hunger Games movie. And that was that. I absolutely cannot let that movie come out without having read the book first (sound familiar?). It was time. 

I found that it took me at least four chapters before I was hooked. I kept starting and it was interesting but not keeping my attention, but once I really committed, soon I couldn't put it down. I read it in a week without even trying (it's a pretty quick read). I was addicted and I loved it. 

The story is dark for a coming of age story, but I got so emotionally invested in it. 

So really, that's all I have to say. Maybe you won't love it is you don't like darker themes or dystopian literature, but I loved it. I'm excited to read the next two although I've heard they're not as good as the first. And I suppose there will be a movie review in the future as well.

But seriously, the hype around this book is there for a reason. Read it. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Warm Bodies

"Warm Bodies"
Written by: Isaac Marion

There are just some books that I hate reading in public because without fail, someone always asks me what I'm reading, and what it's about, to which I have no choice but to reply, "Warm Bodies. It's a book about zombies." My recent obsession with Science Fiction and Fantasy has really made my "guilty pleasure" reading list a lot longer than usual. Even if the book is good, it takes a certain kind of person to embrace the premise of most books in this genre and they rarely earn the respect of literature elitists.

I don't know why exactly, but I was really excited to read this book. I'm not a die hard zombie fan, but I thought the concept was interesting: a post apocalyptic story told from the perspective of a zombie. Maybe it was my doubt that this could be pulled off that created the fascination, but as a I road home from the bookstore next to my husband (who I'm pretty sure was rolling his eyes at me) I was rattling on about zombies and reading the the quotes off the back cover.

This is Isaac Marion's first book but it has gotten some significant support from some famous names. It is a very quick read. Even I, reading only here and there and at my ever slow pace, finished it in less than a week. It was most certainly entertaining. I wanted to know what was going to happen next and as always I was trying to figure out how I would fare in this particular post apocalyptic world.

In the end, I didn't love it. It was sort of hard to take seriously, perhaps a bit reaching in the philosophy department and it felt rushed. It all came together so quickly at the end that I was left feeling unsatisfied. Still, it is a pretty entertaining read and since it's so quick I'd recommend reading it for yourself. After all, it's quite possible that I just haven't embraced the zombie genre yet. Sure it makes for cool makeup in movies, but at the end of the day it's mostly just gross and impossible.

I'm pretty sure this book would come across incredibly cheesy in movie form, but I could see it happening in a couple years time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Movie Review: 127 Hours

"127 Hours"
Released December 2010/January 2011
Directed by Danny Boyle

Alright, a quick review of a movie I just watched this past week for the first time. 127 Hours based on the true story and book Between A Rock and A Hard Place.

I'm not familiar with the bulk of Danny Boyle's work, but he did direct one of my all time favorites Slumdog Millionaire. James Franco is this movie, the other characters (the few minutes that there are other characters) are inconsequential to the story. I have mixed feelings about Franco. I've seen roles he's done very well (Pineapple Express is my favorite) and others that were just god awful (Spiderman anyone?). This was certainly a challenge but I think he pulled it off. It wasn't a life altering performance, but he did pretty well considering what an incredibly difficult performance it was.

I expected to get bored. After all, the majority of this movie is the same scene, same actor, little to no dialogue. Other than the brutal moments of cutting his arm off, what other action was there? How were they going to make this story into a full length film?

Well, I didn't get bored. I was interested the whole time and sat there thinking about what I would do in his shoes. I was cheering at the end, discussing it with my husband and googling the real guy to find out how much of the story was embellished.

It's worth seeing, but I'm not sure it's the sort of movie you can see more than once.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Book/Movie Review: One Day

In the past 10 days I have both read the book One Day and seen it's movie counterpart. So this is a combination review.

"One Day"
Written by: David Nicholls

My old college roommate was coming to stay with my husband and I for a few days with the purpose of attending a mutual friend's wedding. By early August, we had both seen previews for the movie One Day and combined with my ex-roommates love of Jim Sturgess the interest was great enough that we made plans to see it when she was in town. I had heard that the book was amazing so I made a decision that I must read it before I went to see the movie. So one week prior to to scheduled outing I bought the book. I almost didn't make it. It was such an incredibly busy week and by the day before I was about 4 chapters away from being finished. It just seemed unthinkable to be that close to the end and not finish. I did finish. After I got to the climax of the book I rushed through the ending, saw the movie, and then went back at my leisure to reread the ending a couple days later.

It's not a book you want to rush through.

I really loved the book for a couple reasons. The first was just the honesty. The book didn't gloss over anything but really captured the nuances of growing up. There were dozens of times that I related so much to the characters, their questioning and their journey. They were so flawed and being able to get inside their head and see why they made the decisions they did...well, even the bad ones made more sense. It reminded me that everyone makes mistakes and justifies them because we're all human and it's part of life. We have no room to judge, and I learned this even as I experienced disgust with the characters at points. The second thing I really liked was the dialogue. It was rich and witty, the kind of dialogue I day dream about being able to use in real life.

In case you aren't aware of the general premise, the book has two main characters: Dexter and Emma. Each chapter looks into each of their lives on the same day every year for twenty years. Some years they are together and others they are apart. It can be a little hard to keep up with while you are reading because you have to try and catch up on the year you missed in every chapter (figure out what happened over the past year). But it was creative and it worked.

It's very raw in a lot of places. There are some misguided decisions, emphasis put on the wrong values, doubt, reality, selfishness, sexual encounters...    I felt like it was very real and relatable even if I didn't always see eye to eye with the characters.

"One Day"
Released August 2011
Directed by: Lone Scherfig

The general fear with this movie was that the film just would not be able to capture the beauty of the book. It was certainly a challenge. My personal fear was the casting. Who would be able to capture these characters? I groaned a little when I heard Anne Hathaway was going to play Emma. Hathaway is a decent actress but I've just never liked her, and I like Emma, so wasn't sure how I'd remedy that conflict. Additionally, actors trying to master the very distinct accents of other countries rarely work for me. There are obviously exceptions, but American to British seems to be one of the hardest to pull off and I was less than excited about hearing Hathaway's attempt at it. 

The two things this movie had going for it though was that Nicholls was adapting the screenplay himself and it was the perfect sort of movie for Lone Scherfig to direct. She is known for great characterization (An Education for instance) so if anyone was going to pull it off, it was her.

However, in my opinion, the book just didn't translate well to screen. 

I'm not the sort of person who gets upset when they change things about a book for a movie. They are two completely different mediums and to make a movie a good film, you just cannot follow the book exactly. If you can successfully capture the spirit of the book and make a great movie that stands on it's own...I consider that a success. But I just don't think that happened here.

The 20 year span of one day a year just didn't work very well on screen. There was a lot to get in and a lot of time to cover. The movie moved too quickly. It was hard to get to know the characters when they seemed to be changing drastically every few minutes. You didn't get the nuances of their personalities and decisions or ever really feel the pain they experienced. In some cases their flaws were glossed over (Emma's character specifically is far more complex in the book) while in other instances the flaws were two black and white (I found myself hating Dexter in a movie, where I often sympathized with him in the book). Anne Hathaway ended up doing better than Jim Sturgess, and maybe her accent wasn't distractingly terrible (I suppose my own awareness that it wasn't real was more distracting). But at the end of the day, it just didn't work.

I find myself wondering what I would have thought about the movie if I had watched it before reading the book. Am I judging it too harshly? Would I have followed it and liked the characters with no context?

Still, I don't regret reading the book first because the book is absolutely better and would not have been as enjoyable had I known how the story ended. Though there is a general trajectory that you can see unfolding, there are still a lot of surprises along the way that would not have been felt as deeply had I known they were coming.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

"Super 8"
Released June 2011
Directed by J.J. Abrams

I was determined to see this in the theater (monster movies just aren't the same experience at home) and I barely made it. I am so glad I did. It was great. Entertaining, just the right amount of action/effects, great character development and a multilayered story. It's not a particularly innovative story, but it was good and you really got to know the characters which seems increasingly rare nowadays.

I'm very impressed when a movie can be both a crowd pleaser and a good film. Usually there are two categories for the movies that come out during the year. The first is movies with a great story, with great acting, that turn out to be the award winning films. The second are those movies that are crowd pleasing blockbusters brimming with action, effects, and stimulation. Only a few movies pull off being both.

Imagine that? Making a film that's so good that it retains it's artistic integrity and makes money. Who knew?

My pet peeve with action blockbusters is that there's so much action (and not enough build up to it) that I get bored with it. I'm over stimulated and at some point I stop caring. Add to the mix that I could care less if the main character dies because who is this guy anyway? All that's come out of his mouth are cheesy one liners and arrogant quips. It's just not good. Yet, other movies can be so drawn out and slow that it's almost impossible to stay interested. Super 8 had a good balance of action to story. The action always made sense, was never too long or drawn out, but wasn't just added as an afterthought either. It's equally frustrating when a movie seems to be building towards something and then the conclusion is rushed and unsatisfying.

I'm sure not everyone will like this movie, but I was impressed with it. J.J. Abrams is winning me over. First Star Trek, now this? I hope this becomes a trend. If you were wondering, I think the most recent Star Trek was a great movie (and I don't care if "true fans" liked it or not). Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto nailed those characters without being caricatures, and that is not easy to do.

It's not perfect or my new all time favorite, but I really really liked Super 8 and am not embarrassed to recommend it to anyone. I may even buy it.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Movie Review: Red Riding Hood

"Red Riding Hood"
Released March 2011
Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke

I'm not sure how I feel about reviewing older movies, but this one came out this year so I figured it was okay. I had planned to see it in the theater but never got around to it. It looked interesting and it was based off of a book. I very nearly bought that book, but decided to put it on my list of books to read...eventually.

Classic fairy tales and folk tales are commonly used as the foundational story for movies. It's not exactly innovative. It may even be a bit of a cop-out to use a timeless story over and over again. I think a new version of Cinderella graces the silver screen every year and they are normally pretty awful. Yet, every so often one of these adaptions takes a very unique approach and we get a good film out of it. I was hopeful that perhaps this would be one of those movies.

It wasn't.

This is of course not the first adaption of Little Red Riding Hood by any means, but making it into a thriller/horror/live action film was an intriguing idea. Overall, I have to say, I did like the concept, but I don't think that they pulled it off. It was interesting enough to keep my husband and I watching the movie to see how they ended it. (Which is more than I can say about the movie Beastly which was turned off barely halfway through). I'm not saying the ending was shocking, but we wanted to see what direction they would go since the entire movie was set up as a "who dun it" game of Clue. Was the werewolf Professor Plum in the Library or Ms. Scarlett in the Conservatory? Really it didn't matter who it was. They may have even just picked at random.

We were trying to decide if the acting was bad and came to the conclusion that the script was just written poorly. The cast included actors that we were both positive were good actors, and yet the lines were so cheesy and scripted it was hard to get absorbed in the world they created.

Which brings me to the director, Catherine Hardwicke. She's done production design on a number of great films, and I think that may be her forte. The actual atmosphere created is usually pretty good, but as far as directing does I'm unimpressed with her repertoire. One of her more recent directing ventures was Twilight and I don't think anyone, fan or not, is under the illusion that the Twilight movie was a brilliant work of film. No, Ms. Hardwicke's movies have a trend of being disappointing even if the concept it a good one. I always leave her movies thinking "that could have been done so much better" rather than "wow that was terrible." I'm not sure which is worse.

So I can't say that I thought this was a great movie. Perhaps in ten to fifteen years a new director will pick it up to remake and do a much better job...but for now I'd say it was more or less a failure.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Movie Review: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

"The Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
Released August 2011
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

This is probably the best of the Planet of the Apes series. Where that puts it on your scale probably depends on how you feel about the other movies in the series. The original 1968 Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes is a classic. (Of course, it was downhill after the first movie in the classic series, only the first two are even worth mentioning). Then there was the Tim Burton 2001 Planet of the Apes. A remake from a director I love. I don't remember much about the quality of that movie, it's been years since I saw it. I do remember thinking that the ending didn't make sense to me but I heard that it was more accurate to the books than the Heston version. Well, this new movie does a lot in the way of explanation and the story is probably the best and most cohesive of any Apes movies thus far.

Simultaneously, the acting was pretty terrible, or maybe just mediocre. Tom Felton did his best attempt to break away from his Draco Malfoy role by...well choosing a character who was almost exactly like the Draco character...or at least it he acted it almost identical. I'm not impressed with his acting at all, and James Franco is hit and miss. Some movies he's amazing, others you just don't understand how he could act so badly. He was pretty disappointing in this movie. Most of the humans were. Luckily the movie focused on the story of Caesar more than his human counterparts. 

Oh and all I can say about Freida Pinto is...."Latika! Latika!"

Yet, the CGI for the apes was beyond impressive...it was incredible. I wasn't even sure if it was CGI half the time (same team that did the Avatar CGI) and the story was great. For those who can't swallow apes as main characters, it may not be the movie for you. As for me, I enjoyed it.

So...it was a pretty good movie...very high quality in certain areas and poorer quality in others. If you like scifi or the classic series you will probably like this movie. If not, you might not be able to take it seriously.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: The Host

"The Host"
Written by: Stephenie Meyer

Lets talk about Stephenie Meyer. She's become one of the most famous and polarizing authors of the past decade. You either love her or you hate her. Or you're like me and the relationship is slightly more complicated.

Twilight has become a franchise that incites some of the most extreme responses. There is obviously a huge following of Twilight fans who adore these books and movies. Then there are those who hate Stephenie Meyer, who bash the ever-living day lights out of her and think she is one of the most terrible writers of all time. I find each camp somewhat annoying, but hey at least they have conviction.

Before I get to my review of The Host, I want to start by saying that I think people are generally too hard on Stephenie Meyer. I've been in classrooms where English majors just snickered at the thought that anyone could like the Twilight series. I imagine that they might actually endorse a book burning (which goes against everything they stand for! *insert shock here*). I think deeming Meyer as 'worst ever' is unfair. There are much much worse writers out there and clearly she has some storytelling skills otherwise the books wouldn't have become so popular (on their own, before the movie). She was recognized for her writing in young adult circles prior to her fame.

I think the actual issue is that people just don't think she deserves her fame when there are better writers out there, and that may be true. But there are some good things about the Twilight series. The main positive quality I find is that it is a book that can get non-readers to read. You can be elitist all you want about good literature, but less and less people are reading. If a book is entertaining enough to get people reading who wouldn't read otherwise---I think that is a good thing. Most people aren't going to go from magazines to Wuthering Heights or Faulkner.

When I was younger, I liked the idea of reading but I rarely was able to finish a book. It was when I finally stopped trying to read "the good stuff" and just started reading for fun that I started to see progress. By reading books intended for young adults or kids like Harry Potter, The Giver and yes even Twilight, I finally started finishing books, reading faster, reading more and eventually reading better books. I realize some authors are better than others but I think popular literature has its place. The Nicholas Sparks, the John Grishams, they are good writers despite the fact that they will never win a Pulitzer prize.

I do have some issues with the Twilight series. For instance, I don't like that she changed traditional lore about vampires. I also think that the stories got progressively weaker as the series progressed and started to fall apart as far as continuity. The other things I have issues with are about her writing in general so let me get to The Host.

What I liked about the book:

I had no interest in reading this book at first. It's suppose to be "science fiction" after all (not a genre I tend to read often) but I was pleasantly surprised. I found it addictive and I liked the characters. I also liked the concept for the story which was post apocalyptic (probably my favorite genre). It was a quick and easy read.

What I didn't like about the book (and Meyer's writing style in general):

Stephenie Meyer does three things that drive me absolutely bonkers.

First, she goes out of her way to keep it clean. Okay, I know she is Mormon (or was?) and I actually like that the books are clean, but the way she emphasizes this is so distracting. You could easily just not write sex into your story. No explanation is needed. Instead, Meyer includes unnecessary, awkward scenes to explain the absence.

Second, I hate how Meyer finds a good vocabulary word and over uses it. It comes across like she's trying to sound like a better writer than she is. It makes me yell at my book "Can't you think of any other words to describe what's going on?!" In Twilight the word was irrevocable. In The Host it was altruism.

Third, I hate how Stephenie Meyer yields to her fans. Good authors do not do that. They write what they want to write---it's their world, their story. They also generally have reasons for the trajectory that the story is taking. If fans have a problem with something, who cares? You cannot compromise the integrity of the story for a fan. If fans find something ambiguous, maybe it's suppose to be! Example---the ending of Twilight was a cliff hanger. That's fine. It makes sense, and I feel like it was a perfect ending for a movie. But her fans kept asking "What happens?" and instead of giving a coy smile she actually apologizes and clarifies. Who does that? And to make matters worse, they changed the movie ending from the natural cliff hanger to an explanation that didn't even exist in the story until her fans demanded it. I feel like this is the byproduct of liking fame and having fans more than you like the art of writing itself.

I believe in honesty and I never want to be the kind of person who changes my opinion based on popular opinion. So when I like something, I stick to my guns, even if it later becomes unpopular to do so. (Being counterculture is just as trendy as not). So in general, I have to say that I enjoyed both Twilight and The Host. They were easy to read and entertaining. However, I clearly have a conflicted relationship with Stephenie Meyer's writing---it can be entertaining and addictive (especially for non-readers) and it has it's flaws.

Meyer is not the best writer, but she is also not the worst. The Host is an excellent example of this.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens

"Cowboys & Aliens"
Released July 2011
Directed by: Jon Favreau

Often times when I venture out to the movies, whether or not I enjoy the movie depends on what my expectations were prior to seeing it. If I am super excited, I might be disappointed with a movie I would have liked otherwise. If my expectations are low, I might end up being pleasantly surprised.

My expectations for Cowboys & Aliens could be described as skeptical. I was not necessarily expecting a terrible movie (I mean cmon, Spielberg and Howard are in on this), but I was skeptical about the concept itself being successful. Mixing the western genre with the sci-fi genre seems incredibly tricky.

I remember when I saw the preview for the very first time (with no prior knowledge of the movie). It went something like this...

What? Daniel Craig is in a western? Thats inter...WHAT? Harrison FORD is in a western?! This is cra...UM WHAT JUST HAPPENED??!?! WHY ARE THERE ALIENS?????

From the get go I was wary of this whole alien/cowboy mixture. It just had the potential to be either really cheesy or really obnoxious. What convinced me that I wanted to see the movie was an interview I saw with Ron Howard at Comicon. He seemed practically giddy about the partnership and how much fun they had...so I thought, okay Ron...I'll check it out. 

So I saw Cowboys & Aliens this past week with my husband and his best friend and have to admit that I enjoyed it. It wasn't a perfect movie (some elements were great, others lacked), but overall I was entertained. I was worried there'd be too much action and no story, but surprisingly enough they did a lot of character development and spaced out the action appropriately so that is didn't get to be overwhelming or boring. The story itself wasn't great, but the characters were likable if only a little predictable. It felt like a western. It was a western with a unique other worldly problem, but it always felt like a western. It was filmed incredibly well and of course the effects were also done very well. 

The acting was great on some levels and mediocre on others. Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano & Daniel Craig are all fabulous actors in my book and I think they did a great job. I don't think the characters were all that challenging or unique (perhaps I little bit on the stock character side), but these men captured the spirit of the characters as they were intended. The more I watch Daniel Craig, the more I like him. And I must say that Paul Dano has a nack for getting me to hate his character while still maintaining their humanity. 

The rest of the acting was average. Olivia Wilde and Harrison Ford are not the most versatile actors in my opinion. Olivia may go on to prove me wrong, but I think Harrison has had his chance. That being said, I have an unbreakable nostalgia for Harrison Ford. I loved him as a child, deemed him my favorite actor in third grade and declared that I would see every single Harrison Ford movie ever made before I died. (I think I'm pretty close too, by the way). Some of his characters have become my favorites. I think he did well with his character in Cowboys & Aliens all things considered. His character was probably the most complicated and maybe my favorite.

Will I go out and buy this movie for my collection? Probably not. Is it a new favorite? No, not really. But I enjoyed it, and were it given to me as a gift I wouldn't immediately put it on Ebay. 

I'm sure I will watch it again at some point in the future and if you're looking for an entertaining summer film, it's not your worst option.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

"A Discovery of Witches"
Written by: Deborah Harkness

I just finished the book A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. If you like the fantasy genre, then you will probably enjoy this book. It is her debut novel and the first in a planned trilogy.

During college I read a lot of literature and loved it. However, I got the impression that there was this elitism among English majors and professors that excluded popular genres like science fiction or fantasy. Oh sure, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings among a few others grace the classrooms, but the bulk of writing in this genre is completely ignored. The attitude seems to be that if the book is not award winning then it is not good. Generally, I believe that awards are given to progressive and innovative works that are too beautiful to deny. From the ones I have read, I think that the books winning the awards deserve the awards. But when I graduated college, I discovered a whole new world: reading for pleasure and pleasure alone. Suddenly, I could read whatever I wanted and I soon realized that fantasy is one of my favorite genres when it is done well.

Terry Pratchett, Charlaine Harris, Christopher Moore...and on the list goes of famous and talented writers (with cult followings) that are best sellers but usually unrecognized academically.

That being said, it seems like post the Twilight phenomenon there has been an overwhelming amount of fantasy writers emerging. And to be honest, the bulk of these books are just not good. Walking into Barnes and Noble and seeing an entire section entitled "Teen Paranormal Romance" makes me cringe a little (but not nearly as much as seeing any book published that was written by a cast member of The Jersey Shore).

When I started reading for fun, and not for school, I discovered this whole new world of writers---good writers who don't win awards because they write popular romance, fantasy, or mystery. I also discovered that there is an intricate network in these genres and the good authors all seem to know each other. So I guess the challenge now is to sift through the bulk of trendy teen literature to find the gems.

I was reading the blog of one of my favorite fantasy authors and she mentioned Deborah's debut novel. She was full of praise for the book claiming it was a brilliant first novel. This particular author is very well read in fantasy and I thought I'd give the book a shot.

I have no idea what to do with Deborah Harkness. She baffles me. Mostly because she is a historian. This novel is her first and (so far) only work of fiction. The rest of her work includes non fiction books and historical research, all published by major universities. For the past nearly 30 years she has been a scholar and historian. As I was reading the book I found myself shocked that a historian could write fiction so well. I cannot think of any history professor I have had that would cross over into creative writing so seamlessly.

Yet, her background is exactly why I enjoyed the book.

I hate it when authors just "make stuff up" as they go along. When I read fantasy I need it to be believable. I realize that fantasy is by definition impossible, but I believe that good fantasy makes you doubt what you know even if only for a moment. Good fantasy makes you think of what things would be like if magic really did exist. When authors just change traditional folklore and make things up as they go along, I tend to get annoyed. But when they can make their books fit into the longer tradition of folklore and fantasy...that's when they hook me.

J. K. Rowling is the perfect example of this. She has a degree in Mythology...and it is obvious. Everything that happens in the Harry Potter series makes sense. She includes pretty much every mythological creature and legend and she stays true to traditional lore. Everything fits together so intricately and doesn't make you stop and think "what do you mean he sparkles?"

A Discovery of Witches fits into the historical timeline neatly. This is not an alternate reality or world, it is our world with mythological creatures residing in it unbeknownst to their human counterparts. You can tell that she's been to the places she describes which include Oxford and Syracuse. (I have another pleasure in reading about places I've actually been too so the Syracuse bit was exciting for me). The vampires in her story have lived through major historical events and were affected by them or effected them in ways that fit into history flawlessly. The witches in her story are from family lines dating back to the Salem witch trials. Oh and there are daemons.

Much of the book focuses on alchemy (which I have always found fascinating) and early science. This is Harkness' historical area of expertise and it shows. Famous early scientists that dabbled in alchemy, magical possibilities...I was hooked early on.

That being said, it's hard to say whether or not I felt like the book was good as a whole. As the first in a planned trilogy the ending was  a cliff hanger of sorts. The story did not come together or tie up any loose ends. Readers will be left to wait for the next in the series without any answers or closure.

I tend to like series' where each book can stand on its own even as it fits into the bigger picture---and this is not one of those books. However, Ms. Harkness satisfied my inner historian and I was entertained. I'm anxious to finish the series and see if she can pull it off and become a new favorite of mine.


P.S. I suppose I should add a disclaimer that if you are uncomfortable with homosexuality, vampires, magic or witchcraft this is not the book for you. These are all fairly common elements in the fantasy genre, but this is much more of an adult book than say, Harry Potter.