Sun, Jan 27, 2013

: The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick

This is one of those classic movies that I somehow managed to avoid watching all these years. I’d heard a lot about it, but knew little of the story, except that it involved a writer holed up in a remote hotel for the winter and going crazy.

It turns out it’s not just him — his wife and son are there, too. The son’s psychic and can see the future, though that did little for me since it made no difference in the story except to spook the little kid since he was having bad visions of what was going to happen. Really, there isn’t much story here at all. Just a lot of creepy goings-on without much explanation until the very end (and even then, nothing’s really explained).

What makes the movie work, though, is Kubrick’s direction and the fantastic performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, who plays his wife. (I thought the kid was a terrible actor.) What impressed me the most was how Kubrick knew enough to get out of the way and just allow Nicholson’s acting to provide the scares instead of fancy special effects or fake scares (such as a frightening movement turned out to be a passing cat). Several of the scenes focus on nothing but a close-up of Jack’s face as he leers evilly and it’s just about the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Really awesome.

Overall, this is a terrific film. I was slightly disappointed by it simply because my expectations were so high, but I don’t know that there’s really anything wrong with the film except that I expected too much. The story, as I mentioned, is almost non-existent and I guess I was expecting more there. You really watch this for the acting and the direction, which are both top notch. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 25, 2013

: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

I’ve rarely seen a more formulaic film than this one. Based on a fairy tale? Check. Anachronistic modern hip language, guns, and gadgets? Check. Scary, over-the-top witches, digital effects, and blurry, mindless action? Check. Hot gal and guy fighters? Check. Requisite (brief and pointless) nude scene? Check! A simple, by-the-numbers plot? Check and done.

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t terrible. I was mildly amused and there were a handful of interesting innovations. For instance, I like the whole idea of Hansel and Gretel becoming witch hunters in adulthood, and Hansel being diabetic from eating so much sugar at the witch’s candy house as a kid was hilarious. The concept of witches’ evil gradually deteriorating their skin and bodies to explain their hideous appearance is actually quite clever and has a nice feel of poetic justice.

But the film’s fighting was terrible. First of all, H&G just don’t seem very good at what they do. Yes, they always win in the end, but 90% of the fights are them getting beaten up. That just doesn’t seem like a fun way to make a living.

The action’s so fast you really can’t make any sense of any of it, and worst of all, there’s no rhyme or reason to what the witches can do. They seem to be superstrong like superhero villains, which is weird, and they can take a punch like nothing, which is even weirder. Their magic is never explained — there are a few mentions of spells, but mostly they just shoot laser bolts from their wands and fly on broomsticks. The fights last just as long as needed for the next plot point, then miraculously our heroes save the day though logic would have suggested that the witch could have killed them any moment prior.

The film plays tongue-in-cheek with modern language in a period setting, but while that could have been hip or funny, most of the time it just feels awkward.

There are some fun moments, and the plot, while so simple it’s pretty much A-to-B, is serviceable. (The “shocking” reveal toward the end is very predictable.) The cast do what they can with the lightweight script and it’s actually impressive acting to make such dreck come across as semi-sensical, but in the end, this film isn’t worth your time. It’s fine for a few minutes of mindless entertainment, but don’t expect much. It’s a bit of a shame because the main idea had some merit and this could have been a really good movie.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 18, 2013

: The Last Stand

Leisurely paced and unusually low-key for what’s billed as an action movie, this had enough atmosphere and characters to keep me interested despite a weak villain and a predictable and anticlimactic finish.

Shwartzenegger’s good as an old Sheriff who’s seen it all, coming across as tough and gristly and tired; the supporting cast is also excellent. Unfortunately the entire premise of the film is questionable — an escaped con is planning on driving his way to Mexico through the Sheriff’s tiny border town — and the bad guy’s moves are just too convenient.

Still, it was enjoyable and I prefer this kind of slow build-up to movies that just show a lot of meaningless fighting.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 15, 2013

: Black Friday

Author: Alex Kava

I just recent read Exposed, which didn’t impress me much, and this is the next in the series. Like the last one it deals with a terrorist threat — this time a bombing at the Great Mall of America.

Overall it was much more enjoyable as stuff actually happened in the story, but the ending was disappointing as — spoiler alert — the chief bad guy gets away. I’m not sure if Alex is just leaving the door open for a sequel or if the entire point is that such terrorist plots are always built with cutaways and pawns so that the head guy can’t be traced, but as a novel it was unsatisfying. An enjoyable read, but rather light, and the emotional stuff comes across as forced. I still like the author and will continue to read her books as she’s had some really good ones in the past; but these last two feel too much like paint-by-numbers.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jan 07, 2013

: Jack Reacher

I’ve never read any of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series and really didn’t know anything about this film except that it was an action film with Tom Cruise. The opening scene of a sniper shooting random people was hard to watch, considering the events of late, but then the story became an investigation into a conspiracy surrounding that shooting and the film got interesting.

I really liked the way Reacher’s character did his investigating, taking the slightest of clues but very plausibly producing real evidence and leads from them. In a lot of crime stories the leads come too easily and are unrealistic. The uncovering of the conspiracy was extremely interesting and well-done.

Unfortunately, the final third of the film devolves into a straight shoot-em-up with a surprisingly anticlimactic and wimpy fight between the two main enemies. That’s doesn’t ruin the movie, but the weak explanation of the conspiracy almost does. I still liked it overall, but it would have been so much better with a real villain and something beyond mere money at stake. The main bad guy looks as poor as a church mouse — yet supposedly he’s rich from extorting millions from other cities? It made little sense and was tossed off poorly, as though the entire plot of the movie was nothing but a MacGuffin designed just to show Jack Reacher doing his stuff. I have to think the book explains things better, but I don’t know.

I did like the Jack Reacher character, though he’s purposely so enigmatic and mysterious that we don’t get to know much of his motivations or background, which makes him a difficult hero to cheer on. He seems to operate above the law in major ways, and yet the law hassles him constantly over petty things like bar fights. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him, though I don’t think this was particularly successful so they make not make more, but it does have a lot of potential as a movie series.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 05, 2013

: Exposed

Author: Alex Kava

This is the sixth “Maggie O’Dell” book. I’ve read some in the series but missed a few, and I think that confused me, as this came across as rather odd. Many of the characters felt like they were existing ones in the series, so I wasn’t given much of a back story, and thus I couldn’t really them from the more minor characters. That’s a problem in a mystery, as I was trying to figure out who the bad guy was as I read, and in this particular book it felt like a cheat since the twist at the end is all about someone’s identity and I was completely confused as to who was who already.

The story itself is also painfully simple. Very little happens, really, but it’s stretched out over a whole novel. The plot is basically some guy is mailing the Ebola virus to seemingly random targets all over the country and going to start an epidemic. But our heroine, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, is potentially invected right away, so she spends the whole novel in quarantine — which is tedious and boring.

It’s still well-written, there are interesting moments, and the identity of the killer isn’t too terrible (though it still felt like it was never properly explained as I was left with a lot of questions), but all-in-all this felt hollow to me. I never really felt like O’Dell was actually in jeopardy, so all her character’s worries about being exposed were meaningless. The bad guy mailing the virus was the most interesting part of the book, except those scenes were carefully written so that they revealed nothing about his identity, which is, of course, saved for the big reveal at the end. Ultimately, not a terrible book, but definitely the weakest Kava I’ve read (and I’m usually a fan).

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Jan 02, 2013

: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

For reasons I don’t understand, I’m not a fan of this Wallace and Gromit style of animation. (I normally like stop-motion, but this stuff makes me a little nauseous.) It gets better after I watch it a while, but it’s definitely not my favorite.

The humor in this one is also questionable, doing things like including modern references in a period piece. Sometimes that’s funny, but most of the time it just produces a “Huh?” response. For instance, in one scene the pirate captain backs his ship into the harbor and we hear a beeping sound, like trucks make when backing up. Sort of funny, but sort of not.

The plot’s strange, too: it involves an inept pirate and his misfit crew trying to win a “pirate of the year” contest (I liken that to anarchists organizing an “anarchists of the year” award show), with Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria trying to steal the pirate’s pet Dodo bird for their own nefarious ends. Yup. That’s right. Queen V is the villain in this one and it’s really weird. Maybe you have to be British to get that, I don’t know.

Not as bad as it sounds, and there are some really clever gags and scenes, but it’s very uneven. I did like that the main pirate isn’t an idiot — he’s actually pretty intelligent — just down on his luck. Still, this seems targeted at very young kids who will enjoy the cartoon violence and silliness. Disappointing.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 01, 2013

: 11-22-63

Author: Stephen King

I bought this just because I saw it was a new Stephen King book, and I didn’t pay attention to what it was about. It turns out the numbers on the cover were a date I should have recognized if I’d thought about it: the JFK assassination. Of course, if I’d noticed that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the book, as I’m not a fan of politics or history. That would have been a shame, because I loved this book.

This a very different Stephen King: it’s historical fiction and there’s very little of his traditional horror. While ostensibly the book is about time travel to save Kennedy’s life, that aspect of the book is, in a way, a minor part of the story. The way time travel works in this novel is that the main character finds a “rabbit hole” that takes him back to September 1958 — always the same day. So he can always “reset” everything back to the way it was simply by going back through the hole, but he has no control over time itself. This means that to save Kennedy, he has to wait in 1958 until 1963 rolls around.

Thus the book is mostly about what he does in the meantime. It probably sounds boring, because he gets a job as an English teacher and falls in love — ordinary life stuff. But this works brilliantly for several reasons. One, King’s a terrific writer and his work shines here as he brings the 50s and 60s to life, painting wonderful pictures of a bygone era, and making mundane details seem extraordinary. Second, the man’s mission weighs heavily on every decision he makes, lending an import to the ordinary that makes the reader care about everything that happens. Finally, the story involves shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald and getting a glimpse into history, and while I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, this was mesmerizing. It felt like I was there and like Oswald was a real person.

One aspect of this book that I must point out — if you’re a teacher or know teachers, this is a must-read. It has some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about what a teacher’s life is life and how that teacher, with small gestures, can effect a student’s life. (As a time traveler, our main character is particularly sensitive to the long-term consequences of his actions.) There are several scenes that will have you tearing up and are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Though the book is very long at around 30 hours (I’ve been listening to it for months in my car), it’s so compelling you can’t put it down. Several of the smaller “side plots” would make killer short stories or novels themselves. For someone like me who doesn’t like this genre to recommend this should tell you something: I just adored this (and I bought a text copy for re-reading even though I own the audiobook). It’s just wonderful: simple, elegant, and not flashy or gimmicky at all despite the time travel angle.

Topic: [/book]