Tue, Dec 31, 2013

: Seven Psychopaths

Strange movie. I wanted to love it. I love the quirky sense of humor and I don’t mind weird — but I never could quite get a handle on what the heck this film was. It reminded me of odd British comedy-dramas like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but it wasn’t quite as over-the-top and that made its identity more confusing.

This film mixes reality with a screenwriter’s new script, which is called Seven Psychopaths, and features characters in the film. The blend of reality and fiction is fun, but confusing, and by then end of the film I was expecting some big reveal that most of what we’d seen was just in the script and not real.

There are a lot of cool characters, and some fun psychopaths, and it’s got an amazing cast, but everything feels a little forced, like the writers are trying too hard to make stuff outrageous or funny.

The basic plot is… well, I guess it’s mainly about how the screenwriter’s friend, who’s a professional dog-napper, kidnaps a Bad Guy’s dog and he turns out to be a psychopath and wants revenge. The dog-napper gets his screenwriter buddy involved in the mess and they’re on the run while at the same time trying to finish the screenplay.

It’s not a terrible film at all — it’s got a ton going for it. It just didn’t completely work for me. I’d give it a solid B, though there are a few scenes that are A+. The cast, especially Christopher Walken, are worth the price alone.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 21, 2013

: Identity Thief

The basic story is about an average guy stuck in a 9-to-5 and struggling to make ends meet for his family, when everything goes upside down after he’s the victim of identity theft. When he finds out the theft is in a distant state and the local cops can’t do anything and it will take a year to straighten out the bureaucrat mess (with his life in ruins in the meantime), he decides to track down the thief himself and convince her to come back to Colorado with him and tell his boss the truth so he won’t lose his job.

Yeah, pretty thin, but it gives us a bizarre road trip movie with two people who don’t like each other and slowly learn that each has something to offer the other.

It’s not as raunchy as I’d feared, but still has a few crude moments that feel out of place and odd. Several times it’s like the writers were painting by numbers and said, “Ah, it’s been five minutes since we’ve had a vulgar joke so we need one here.” Then they go ahead and insert it even if it doesn’t fit the characters or the scene.

Still, there’s a lot of fun here and some surprising heart. Definitely not for kids, but amusing. My favorite part by far was when the thief connects with the man’s children at the dinner table by smearing food on her face — just amazingly tender and hilarious. From a child’s perspective, you just know they’re going to adore her forever.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 17, 2013

: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One

Author: George R.R. Martin

I’ve been curious about this since the series first launched on HBO and I got to see the first episode for free, but I wanted to read the book before watching the series. It’s taken a while. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for months! It just goes on and on and on and on. It’s not uninteresting at all, but it’s such a mammoth tale that it feels like there is no conclusion.

It’s a difficult book/series to describe. It’s a fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in a more Medieval setting, with knights and kings, battles and betrayals, and plenty of blood and sex. There’s magic and supernatural stuff, but in this first book that’s mostly only hinted at (I suspect that more is coming later in the series). It’s basically a sprawling epic with thousands of characters (and this is just the first book).

To give you a brief overview of the myriad characters we have three basic groups of people:

  • Queen Lanister, her son and twin brother, and her other relatives and friends, who are trying to take over the throne.
  • Lord Ned Stark and his many children (ranging in age from 9 to 15), who rule the wintery land of the North. He’s been asked by his old friend, the King, to become the King’s “Hand” (his right-hand man) after the previous Hand died (we later learn it was murder).
  • A brother and his thirteen-year-old sister who are distant exile, the last of their line, and apparently the original heirs to the throne who were defeated. As the novel starts the brother sells his sister to be the wife of a wealthy savage (he has 100,000 men on horses) in exchange for an army that he will lead to defeat the current king and regain his family’s throne.

What works is the awesome level of detail and vivid world history in the story. The characters are all three-dimensional and the verisimilitude of the setting is amazing. There’s eons of history to draw from, multiple cultures with their own traditions and languages, and very real conflicts. The writing is excellent, and the plots are as intricate and fascinating as spiderwebs.

The main flaw I note is the one that nagged me throughout this book, and sadly, even after I finally finished it: the question of why. Why was this written? What is the point? What am I supposed to get out of it? Is this mere entertainment or is there a higher purpose?

While it’s wonderful to have such well-rounded and non-black-and-white characters, this series does not really give us clearcut heroes. Pretty much everyone is somewhat evil or at least it seems that way. I suppose that’s more like real-life, but it makes for depressing reading. There’s no one really to cheer or root for, and I really have no idea where the series is going (and in a way, nor do I much care since I can’t cheer for any particular character). There are people in the stories that I like and admire, and there are some that are wonderfully bad, and most of the characters are very interesting — but there’s really nothing here for me to sink my teeth and say, “Ah ha! This is who the story is about.”

Now it’s very possible that the story is just so massive (we’re up to five huge books now, out of a planned seven) that such a core character will be revealed later in the series, but I’m sure I don’t have the patience for that. While I like complexity and realism, there is a limit. This book left me dead inside. While it is fascinating and entertaining, and I’m curious what will happen to the various people, I just don’t care enough about anything. The world the story is set in is distant and strange, and I’m honestly not even sure if these people are human. They’re violent, nasty, and cruel, and the world they live in is violent, nasty, and cruel. There are wars and beheadings and maimings and rapes and murders and very little in the way of anything nice. There are some innocent children in the story, but they don’t stay that way for long in such an environment.

Ultimately the questions I had when I started reading this are still unanswered. Why was this written? What am I supposed to get out of it? It is mere entertainment? At least with a traditional good-versus-evil story we know who to root for and why. This is just nasty people stabbing equally nasty people in the back.

Now I do like the way the book sets things up for the future: we’ve got a lord with a bunch of children that each are having their own adventures, and I’m fascinated to watch them grow up and see what becomes of them. But that’s the big picture. Judging this book by itself, it’s woefully incomplete despite being a zillion pages long.

That said, I have started watching the TV series and while I see some differences — plot points condensed, new scenes written to give us information in a different way, and typical arbitrary changes for unknown reasons — I am enjoying the TV version far more than the book. It moves at a faster pace and yet it’s more understandable. The book is so vast with so many characters that I have trouble keeping track of who is related to who and what the relationships are, especially when certain people go for hundreds of pages without a mention, while the TV series makes that much more clear.

I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t recommend it except for the most avid readers. For most people the TV show is far more accessible. I basically could have watched all 30+ hours of the three years of the TV show in the time to took me to listen to this one book! So watch the show — I really like it — and if you’re infatuated with this world you can always explore the books later.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Dec 15, 2013

: Jack the Giant Slayer

This is a fascinating film. Not because of anything in it, but because it was a giant flop (ha ha) at the box office. I was going to see it but the early feedback was so negative I didn’t bother.

What’s wrong with it? That’s the interesting thing: not that much. It’s actually got a decent story that’s a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale, but with enough new twists and turns to make for something entirely new. The special effects are ridiculous — over-the-top and just so outrageous it’s unbelievable that any movie producer would even consider making a film this effects-driven. We’re talking hundreds of digital giants, castle destruction, skyscraper beanstalks, and much more. It’s almost too much.

The real problem is that this film doesn’t quite know what it is. Is it a comedy? Not really, though it feels absurd enough that it could be. But it doesn’t go far enough or have consistent jokes to be a comedy. Is it a drama? It takes itself surprisingly seriously considering the material, and there are moments that feel like they’re supposed to be dramatic… only considering the type of film is this they fall flat.

This problem what type of movie it is also spread into the marketing, which didn’t know how to promote it. My impressions of what the trailers claimed this was and to what it turned out to be are almost opposites. Sure, I got the basic Beanstalk story I expected, but I didn’t get any of the serious peril and death that are actually in the movie. Instead, the trailer made the action look cartoonish and silly, and there didn’t seem to be a plot.

That’s a shame, because the plot is what makes this work. It’s impressively clever, explaining away various differences and similarities of the original tale, and I liked that they made changes such as making Jack smart. (For example, he doesn’t just trade a horse for magic beans — the beans are collateral he’s supposed to take to the abbey the next day to exchange for cash.)

There are several clever twists in the plot I really liked: it starts going one direction that seems predictable and then veers off in another way. I also really liked the way the naive Jack is actually able to battle the giants: it was believable.

But all that said, there are notable flaws. The script’s schizophrenic and inconsistent. There’s some excellent dialog — and some of the worst I’ve ever heard (my nominee is the “barking up the wrong beanstalk” line). The tone of the film is all over the place, ultra-realistic at times and cartoonish at others; it’s confusing. There’s a dull lifelessness to things at the beginning and it takes too long for the story to get going: for me that didn’t happen until we get a glimpse of the villain and his plans for domination.

These mistakes are awkward but not deal-breakers: many films are similarly weak but still work. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed this. The special-effects are great and the story is clever. It’s just our expectations weren’t set correctly by the marketing and this thing was doomed from the start. It’s sad to see such wasted potential. I think you’d like this if you go in with lower expectations and prepare yourself for a slightly more serious movie than you’d think.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 14, 2013

: Pitch Perfect

I was curious about this when it came out: it sounded fun, and some of the singing scenes looked impressive. But it seemed too predictable: an a capella group made up of misfit girls competing for a trophy… I wonder what’s going to happen?

It’s actually surprisingly decent. It could use more depth and there’s a little bit of gross-out humor that I found distracting (a singer barfing on stage, way overdone). But the music and singing numbers are the best parts — lots of great songs, cool performances, and who doesn’t like to see the underdogs rise up and triumph over the smug know-it-alls? Predictable, yes, but with moments of magic. I enjoyed it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 13, 2013

: Snitch

It took me a little while to figure out the key problem with this film: it’s the casting of Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) as the lead. It’s not that he’s bad — he’s actually very good — the problem is that when The Rock stars in a film we expect it to be a big action movie. This is not.

This is actually a thoughtful, serious film about what happens when an untrained regular guy goes undercover to catch drug dealers so that he can help his son get a reduced sentence. Instead of The Rock beating up guys, he gets beat up — he’s not the tough guy we’re used to seeing. I believe that turned a lot of people off of this film as it just isn’t why people go see his movies. If the lead had been played by a character actor such as Edward Norton, this would have engendered a very different (and much more positive) reaction.

As it is, I liked it. It’s got flaws — we don’t really care about the incarcerated son that’s the core motivation of the dad, the pacing is uneven, there are some awkward plot points and there’s not really enough action, and the ending’s mediocre — but it’s realistic and surprisingly thoughtfully done. That in itself is probably a flaw: the film takes itself and its topic too serious (the opening “Based on a true story” text and closing summary text are examples of that). Still, it’s interesting and not horrible at all. Just don’t expect an action movie.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I enjoyed the first film and while I was looking forward to this one, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since they’re apparently splitting the book into three behemoth movies.

To my delight, this is an even better film. The story is somewhat slim as the bulk of the film’s running time is made up of action. Scenes that just take a page or two in the novel, are major action set pieces in the movie. Usually in those situations there’s a part of me just wants to get on with the plot, but to my surprise, the action is so well-done and compelling that I wasn’t the least bit bored. It’s really some of the best action I’ve ever seen.

As one example, we must see hundreds of grotesque Orcs killed throughout the film — but every death shown is different and interesting, and often with black humor.

As for the story, it’s mostly the second half of the book: going through Mirewood, meeting the wood Elves, escaping in the barrels, and eventually confronting Smaug the dragon. However, that basic story has been expanded with an Elf-Dwarf semi-romance, Gandalf confronting the Necromancer, and several other subplots. Much of this extraneous stuff isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s not boring, and it builds up suspense in the main storylines. It also sets up what happens in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’m guessing that it’s setting up the third film in this series. (More on that in a minute.)

The utter delight of the film — just like Gollem was in the previous series — is Smaug the dragon. Not only is he a visual treat, but he’s a real character, superbly voiced, and there’s extensive interaction between him and Bilbo and the dwarves. The action scenes with the dragon are so amazingly well done that I watched ten minutes of the action before it occurred me to that the actors were all performing with no dragon in sight — since he was added digitally later. Usually I’m keenly aware of such a technicality as the interaction does not feel true. Here you just get lost in the mesmerizing story and characters and completely forget — like with Gollem — that the dragon isn’t real.

Smaug is worth the price of admission alone, though I cannot neglect to mention the impressive performance of Evangeline Lily (from the Lost TV series) who is just awesome in every way as the elf Tauriel. I didn’t recognize her in the film and kept wondering who the fantastically beautiful and yet clearly talented actress was: not only was her Elvish convincing, but she was incredible in the action sequences as well.

Not to be outdone, all the dwarves are also splendid, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin. The entire cast is flawless, really, a real rarity in movies (I usually always find at least one or two people that feel miscast to me).

In short, this is a must-see film. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, dramatic, thrilling, and emotional. About the only negative I have is that it literally ends in the middle of a sentence — we have to wait for part three to find out what happens.

That brings up the most interesting aspect of this trilogy: I am both excited and wary of the next film. On the one hand, I can’t wait, but on the other, this film exhausts almost all of the novel, so what will part three be about? Granted, Tolkien did write extensive histories and notes that the producers can rely upon for additional material, but I worry that the final movie, which is usually the strongest, could end up the weakest. But the other side of the coin is that part three could end up being the least predictable and the most surprising and interesting simply because I have no idea what it will be about!

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 05, 2013

: The Book Thief

This is a marvelous film. Being a bookworm, I was intrigued by title; finding out it is set in the horror WWII and deals with a young girl escaping her life through literature, I was sold and went without even watching a trailer.

It was different than I expected. My first surprise is that the girl in question is German, which gives us a different perspective of the war. She’s an orphan sent to live with foster parents, which is an adventure, and she’s just lost her beloved little brother. Most surprising of all, she’s illiterate — and it’s her quest to learn to read, combined with the Nazi regime’s policy of book burning, that prompts her to become a book thief.

My biggest worry was that this would be a depressing film. My second worry was that it might be schmaltzy. Neither was a problem at all. The film is wonderfully engaging, and though it deals with serious topics, it’s not a downer at all. It’s not overly sentimental, either. There’s humor, wonder, and adventure, in addition to tragedy.

The best thing about the film undoubtedly is the casting of the Book Thief herself, as she’s in almost every scene and carries the film. Young Sophie NĂ©lisse is just marvelous, with a subtlety to her acting I found astonishing. When she first meets her foster parents, for instance (my favorite scene in the whole film), she’s sour and reluctant to emerge from the vehicle. Her strict foster mother yells at her to no avail, but it’s her tender-hearted foster father — awesomely portrayed by the inimitable Geoffrey Rush — who greets her with a bow and a “Your Majesty.” Her reaction is perfect. At first she stubbornly refuses to be won over by his charm, but a moment later, as she gets out of the car, there’s the faintest flash of a smile, a tiny upcurling of the edges of her mouth. It disappears almost instantly, but it’s enough for us to glimpse the human side of the traumatized girl. Just precious and perfect. She’s my vote for an Oscar, no question.

Almost everyone else is good, though I found a few of the German accents off-putting and fake. (I don’t know who made the decision to have everyone speak English with German accents — they should either speak normally or in German. Nothing else makes sense.) There are a few other minor complaints — the blond boy was a weak actor, though he looked the part; the closeup of a book’s text at one point clearly showed it was modern typesetting (with horrible straight quotes no less); the term “soccer” is used instead of “football,” which would never happen in Germany; and I didn’t understand why the girl, who beat up a boy earlier, stood and watched later when a boy was hurting her friend — but these are relatively minor things.

Overall, it’s a terrific, mesmerizing film that will haunt you for days. The story is simple and elegant, and not overly done. I can’t compare it to the novel as I haven’t read that (yet), but the film is definitely one I wouldn’t mind seeing multiple times.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 03, 2013

: Warm Bodies

I was curious about this interesting take on a zombie movie (in this case a zombie falls in love with a human), but I missed it in theaters. It’s actually really good.

I’m not crazy about the way the zombies talk in the film — it sounds way too sophisticated and they use contractions and full sentences — but other than that they do a good job of making the love story plausible.

The direction is clever and interesting, and the plot is simple but effective, as a cure is sought for the zombies’ situation. The ending is Hollywood but I liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 01, 2013

: Broken City

Usually this type of crime drama isn’t my cup of tea. This one is predictable (a corrupt Mayor and the ex-cop-now-PI trying to bring him down) and dreary, and the main guy (played by Mark Wahlberg) has zero personality (perfect casting).

Yet despite all that, I actually watched this. Maybe the predictability helps, as you want to see if what you thought really comes to pass. It’s got a hint of something that makes it slightly above average and it’s not terrible. It’s not great as there’s little remarkable here, but it’s mildly entertaining if you’re in the right mood.

Topic: [/movie]