Sun, Jun 28, 2015

: The Enemy

Author: Lee Child

This is another Jack Reacher book, more recent, but it’s a prequel, set back in the first day of 1990 while Reacher was still in the army and his brother and mother were alive. That’s rather cool.

Unfortunately, the plot is… unsatisfying. The story involves an army conspiracy, but Reacher’s not in a position of great power, so he’s forced to wade through a ton of government bureaucracy. We see hints of classic Reacher personality as he cuts through some of the red tape, but not nearly enough of it (as his “just do it” attitude in the other books is what makes him such an awesome character). A huge part of the book is us learning about how the army works, which, while interesting, isn’t drama.

A side effect of this plot — which involves several murders happening and Reacher investigating — is that be don’t learn what’s going on until the very end. Worse, nothing at all connects until about the 80% mark, which means for the majority of the book we don’t have a clue what’s going on, who the bad guys are, or where the story is going. That makes it a bit of a slog. It’s still interesting with side storylines and personal stuff, but the main plot feels almost like an afterthought.

Things do tie together in the end, though the whole thing is a stretch and a rather strange conspiracy, but I wouldn’t put this up there as my favorite Jack Reacher novel by any means. I do like the series and plan to read more, though.

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: Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

This was my favorite book as a kid; I actually had it memorized and would recite the whole thing. I was curious to see how they were able to turn such a short story into a movie.

The previews didn’t look that good — mostly showing slapstick comedy and silliness — but it’s only got some of that (though it’s still more than needed). I initially liked how they added in the twist of the boy wishing a bad day on the rest of his optimistic family so they’d know how he feels, but then that means the whole movie is really about the rest of the family’s bad day, not Alexander’s, which is… not what the book’s about.

The film still has some good moments and is quite pleasant with good lessons for young kids, but it leaves out some of the best parts of the book. For instance, in the book the key line — repeated throughout — is the boy wishing he lived in Australia. In his mind, that’s as far away as he can get, so he’d rather be there than having a bad day at home. In the movie they that turn that concept into him being obsessed with Australia (with kangaroo posters on his walls, etc.), with zero mention of why (which is the only thing about his obsession that actually matters). Rather bizarre.

Another criticism which touches on a pet peeve of mine since it’s an industry I know something about: the whole plot point about the mom’s book company somehow printing a book with a bad typo after she’d given the okay on the final proof is just absurd. It might have worked if they’d offered some explanation for how it happened, but they never did, and just blamed it on the printing company. Ridiculous.

Overall, I’d give this a C+: a decent effort, well-done for the most part, harmless, nice morals, but somehow falls flat and doesn’t do justice to such a classic book. The key flaw is having the bad day be about everyone else, not Alexander, which is just weird.

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Sat, Jun 20, 2015

: Gone Girl

I missed this last year and wanted to see it, though I was puzzled at all the great buzz about it. It seemed to tell a very familiar story and I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be innovative or surprising about it.

Well, there are a few surprises, mostly at the direction the film takes for the resolution, but it’s an unsatisfying conclusion. It left a bad taste in my mouth and basically ruined the movie for me. What makes the rest of the movie good is the acting, pacing, and script, which, while a predictable story, is done extremely well.

But all that is moot if the ending doesn’t work, and it doesn’t for me. Others may feel differently. I applaud that the film is trying to do something different and unusual, but it fell flat for me. It’s “poetic justice” didn’t feel like justice at all (more like a scam, with me the victim).

I also thought the psychological problems of the main characters were too severe to not be noticed earlier. (You could argue that the problems were developed later, but that doesn’t fly since part of the plot is proof that the behavior was part of a trend and similar characteristics had happened several times in the past.)

Oh well. Decent film, but not as good as the publicity made it seem.

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Fri, Jun 19, 2015

: Inside Out

I was not expecting much with this as the premise (personalized emotions inside a little girl’s head) seemed old and used to me (it’s just like the old Herman’s Head TV show), but once again Pixar surprises.

The key for me is that there’s a lot more innovative stuff than just talking emotions. The world inside the girl’s head is vast and well-done, with clear rules of its own. For instance, each emotion (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) having their own color (yellow, blue, red, purple, green). There are “memory balls” — colored spheres that contain a video of key memories — that roll into as they are created, with the most special ones becoming “core” memories that define the girl’s personality. The spheres take on the color associated with that memory (happy ones are yellow, sad ones are blue, etc.). There are different places in the brain where the balls are stored (long-term, short-term, core, etc.), while less important memories are thrown away for good.

There are wonderful places inside this internal world, such as Imagination Land, and fun things like the “train of thought” which runs around rather randomly.

But all of this would be pointless without a good story, and here the writers have done a great job of keeping the outer story simple. Riley, the little girl, has moved with her family from Minnesota (where she played ice hockey all the time) to San Francisco. She’s lost all her friends, her house, her hockey, and is stuck in a new school. Her dad’s over-busy with work and stress, and their moving truck is stuck in Texas, so she doesn’t even have her things.

As these things make her sad, we see panic inside her head, where Joy, who’s usually in charge and always keeps Riley happy, is struggling to contain Sadness, who seemed to bumble everything and is turning everything blue. Then when Joy and Sadness get separated from Headquarters, that leaves Anger, Fear, and Disgust running the ship (er, Riley), with hilarious and predictably bad results. As Joy and Sadness wander around in the brain trying to get back to control things, Joy has to learn that there’s a place for Sadness, who she thought was a useless emotion. It’s a pretty cool concept as both Riley (outside world) and Joy (inside world) have to learn new lessons.

There are aspects of the film that weren’t perfect. The resolution is too easy-peasy (and we don’t get to see how Riley actually adapts and makes new friends in San Francisco, we only see that she does).

The film also violates one of my biggest pet peeves, which is showing memories from the camera point-of-view. (When you remember something, say a favorite birthday party from your childhood, do you see yourself in the video playback in your head? Of course not: you remember what you saw, not what other people saw.) But this film repeatedly shows memories of Riley ice skating and such — views she wouldn’t know. I do realize there’s a practical element to deciding to do it this way: if all we see is Riley’s viewpoint as she spinning around on ice, it’s hard for us to tell what’s going on, that’s she skating or whatever, but still. The film does open with her viewpoint, seeing her parents for the first time, etc., so it does mix both viewpoints.

Still, this is a minor gripe. Overall, the film’s more original than it sounds, has an interesting world, and a solid story, and is worth your time.

I will add that though it’s not related directly to this film, I was seriously disappointed with the opening short, Lava. Usually Pixar’s shorts are one of my favorite things about their films (and sometimes I like them better than the main feature). But this one was shockingly lame.

The premise is neat — a humanized volcano island in the ocean seeking love — but the execution is abysmal. The main volcano looks great, like a rock but with eyes and a mouth. But his love interest looks like a woman and only vaguely volcanoish. Top all that with an over-long talky “song” that narrates exactly what we’re seeing onscreen, and you have a tedious short that feels like it’s five-minutes too long. The music is weak, and the art is worse. I’m shocked this made it off the rough draft table, let alone got approved to precede a major film. Very strange.

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Thu, Jun 18, 2015

: San Andreas

You go to this kind of movie for the special effects and these are pretty good. It actually gives me a headache to think of all the work required to make a movie like this. Just a crazy amount of destruction.

But the actual story, while stereotypical (a man in the middle of divorce tries to rescue his family), is decent enough that we actually care about what’s going on.

Ultimately this is about non-stop action, about peril after peril (such as when the characters reach a breathing point and think they’re safe, and suddenly there’s a new threat of a giant tsunami hitting San Francisco). The film’s good at that, though certain aspects are too predictable. Still, it’s a fun ride: over-the-top, a bit silly, but surprisingly watchable.

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Sun, Jun 14, 2015

: I Origins

Strange and fascinating film. It involves a scientist who is into eyes, searching for “eye origin” gene, which he could use to grow a worm without eyes into a seeing creature and therefore prove Creationists wrong (since their argument against evolution is that the eye is too complex to evolve and must have been designed).

We don’t get much into the man’s motivations or why he hates religion so vehemently, but we do get some interesting debates on spirituality versus science. This leads up to the key premise of the film where his scientific research leads him into a direction that seems to prove reincarnation.

Unfortunately, we aren’t really taken to a place where the man has to confront such a thing — the findings are ambiguous — but it’s still an interesting ride. I wouldn’t call this a great film, as it is slow in places and not enough happens, but it is thought-provoking and worth watching if you like your thinking to be challenged.

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: A Walk Among the Tombstones

This looked like an intriguing Liam Neeson action movie, but it is not. It’s so boring I fell asleep and didn’t care that I missed part of the film. Even with a nap in the middle, it felt like a 6-hour movie.

The premise sounds good: a somewhat shady retired cop who does private investigation work gets hired to find the men who kidnapped and killed a drug dealer’s wife. The bad guys are really sick and bizarre, but not particularly interesting. No one is. The homeless kid who helps Liam’s character is about as enticing as it gets, while Liam himself is such a stone wall that we don’t even care much about him.

While there are a few good scenes and the atmosphere of the film is good, the story is sluggish, and there are many unexplained plot holes. Worst of all, little happens and there’s no action. It’s just tedious and boring. The thing felt like watching a lit firecracker for two hours only to have it fizzle out into a dud with no bang.

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Fri, Jun 12, 2015

: Jurassic World

I loved the original and while this can’t possibly match that, it’s definitely the best of the sequels. It’s set 20 years after the previous movies and the “Jurassic World” theme park has been opened for many years. I loved that idea, and it’s great seeing a real park in operation. We see tiny kids riding dinosaurs in a petting zoo, an aquatic center with a giant dinosaur sea monster splashing the audience, and much more. The place feels real, down to the Jurassic World drinking cups and Starbucks and other franchises in the tourist trap’s main street.

Into that setting we let loose some wild dinosaurs, with chaotic results. Pretty cool.

Granted, there’s much that’s silly and generic: the idea that the scientists have to play God and create their own hybrid dinosaur is dumb, as is the stereotypical military colonel who wants to turn the dinosaurs into weapons, not to mention the strange billionaire park owner who one moment is criticizing the scientists and the next encouraging them. Even the woman who runs the park and changes character because her visiting nephews are in peril is a bit too on the nose, though it actually was my favorite part, simply because Bryce Dallas Howard is such a good actress and pulls it off. (Chris Pratt, as the heroic animal trainer, is also surprisingly excellent.)

But this series was never about deep characterization. It’s about dinosaurs, and here the film entertains. There’s lots of fun, good action, and amazing special effects. Just enjoy it and don’t think too hard.

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Fri, Jun 05, 2015

: Spy

I was leery of this because Melissa McCarthy, though I like her, tends to be in really raunchy movies. This has a bit of that, but it’s mostly in language (the F-word is used half a billion times) rather than gross-out scenes.

What I really liked is that the plot and events are realistically done. McCarthy’s character plays a CIA analyst who goes out in the field for the first time, and everything about why she has to go and how she does the job is reasonably realistic. There’s still tons of humor, including Jason Statham’s crazy ultra-spy character (which mocks every spy cliche in the book), and the marvelous villain, played by wild Rose Byrne, who stole the movie for me.

The bottom line is that though the film is vulgar, it’s tamer than most, and it has its charm and is quite enjoyable and funny. Plus the spy stuff is cool and there’s some good action.

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Thu, Jun 04, 2015

: Mad Max: Fury Road

Now this is a Mad Max movie! Awesome action from start to finish, with over-the-top sets, characters, and craziness. Just awesome.

Even the plot’s nuts: Max is caught by some weird group who turn him into a human “blood bag” (his blood keeps one of their sick warriors alive). Then one of the group’s leaders, a woman, goes rogue and it turns out she’s stolen the “breeders” (mothers). A host of warriors in crazy cars goes after her and it’s a race to the death against ridiculous odds, with Max in the middle of it all.

I can’t even begin to describe all the bizarre characters and events. You just have to see it. It’s wild and a lot of fun, and no doubt the best of all the Mad Max movies.

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Mon, Jun 01, 2015

: Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Author: Ruth Downie

Strange book. It mixes genres in a way that’s both intriguing and incomplete. For instance, despite its historical setting, it’s not really a historical novel, and the bulk of the story seems to be a mystery, with our hero, a Roman physician (Medicus), acting as a detective, searching for who has been killing several prostitutes.

The problem is that he’s a terrible detective, the mystery takes forever to solve, and in the end seems to be resolved on its own, not by anything he did in particular. It’s also not a mystery the reader is very interested in solving, since the dead girls are already dead at the start of the novel and no one we knew and cared about. Their deaths also seem trivial in light of life in Roman times, where much worse things are happening all the time.

Most of the book is about the man’s financial problems as he juggles debts, and his rebellious new slave girl, Tilla, who keeps running off on her own and disobeying him. I really didn’t care about his finances, and there really was very little about his supposed medical skills.

Also, the tone of the book is very modern. Except for a few bits of Roman jargon and some missing technology, it could have set today. Some aspects of Roman life portrayed surprised me, such as the detailed ledgers and accounting books that were kept, and how a doctor’s pay was calculated and distributed (with deductions that sound remarkably like the way it works today). I would have liked more of an explanation for that kind of thing (the same goes for the medical practices, which aren’t explained at all).

But a bigger issue is that the main character has such modern sensibilities that the whole novel feels preachy and forced. There’s no explanation for the man’s beliefs, no reason he should be that way, or defense of him being that way. He’s basically considered normal except that he doesn’t think like any of the other Romans. For instance, he seems to think slavery is bad, despite being an upper class citizen in a society dependent upon slave labor. I’m find with him being anti-slavery — but for his character to be complete, we need to understand what makes him that other. Since we’re not told that, he feels out of place, as though he’s a time traveler from our day.

Ultimately, the novel’s mildly interesting, but the “mystery” is both weak and too convoluted, and the story rambles all over without any real focus. The author has potential, but this definitely feels like a first try.

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