reviews

It's been way too long since I've reviewed anything, so I'm going to throw a bunch on short summaries on some stuff I've read and watched lately.

Movies

Green Lantern
VV1/2

As much as I love Ryan Reynolds's abs and smile, this movie was terrible. Bad dialogue, shallow characterization...I just didn't know what to make of this film. I'm guessing there's more on the cutting room floor that might make it more palatable, but I can't recommend it...unless you want to have a drinking game where you take a shot every time you see Ryan Reynolds's dimples.

Captain America
VVVV 

On the superhero kick leading up to next year's Avengers, this origin movie featuring Nazis, little guys becoming big guys, and muscles doesn't get much better. Try not to think about the logic or physics, and you're going to have a lot of fun. Great performances by all, and Tommy Lee Jones steals the show.

Horrible Bosses
VV1/2

I barely remember what this movie was about. Revenge on bad bosses, hijinx go wrong...and that's about it. I think I laughed at a couple of places; it was fairly predictable, but a good rental. Or download for a quiet night in.

Books

The Hunger Games trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
VVVV1/2 

Fast-paced action, clean and simple but engrossing writing, terrific characters...I don't know why you haven't yet read these books. The Hunger Games (book 1) remains my favorite of the three, but the series holds up well as a full story. I'm looking forward with cautious optimism to the movie, slated for March 2012.

Tangled Past
by Leah Braemel
VVVV

I read Leah's first in this series, Texas Tangle, and this prequel holds up well. It's a Wild West frontier threesome, with a great story and steamy hot sex. Fun times!

Kobo Touch eReader
$139 CDN
VVVV

For my birthday, my hubby got me the latest Kobo ereader—something I'd been coveting for a while since he'd started using his Sony ereader more. Since my Palm Pilot (circa late 1990s) died back in 2005, I'd been without a handheld ereading device. Getting this had me super excited to test it out.

The design of this reader is really slick—I got the pearl white version. The quilted, slightly rubbery back has a nice texture to it, and gives you a good grip. It's light, about the size of a mass market paperback book, but it's only about as thin as a checkbook.

Out of the box, the unit is already half charged. It needs to be plugged into a computer (via USB, for which a cable is included) for charging and activation on the Kobo website. The in-box instructions aren't very helpful--there's an e-manual on the reader, but that can be a little annoying to flip through at first if you're still trying to figure out how the darn thing works. You have to download the Kobo program to your computer in order to manage any titles you buy off their website, but that doesn't mean you have to buy exclusively from Kobo.

Hubby showed me Calibre ebook management, which is a great program that can transfer any EPUB files to your Kobo reader, as well as convert files from other formats to ones you can read on whatever reader you own. I had an old account with Fictionwise.com and managed to upload all the books from that library onto the Kobo reader without too many issues--one thing it didn't do was give me the converted page count, so that as many pages as I'd flip through on a converted EPUB, it might still count them all as page 3. It's a "true" page count in that sense, but I like to see the pages fly by as I read them.

I also tried converting a PDF (Nika Dixon's Second Chances) into an EPUB, just to see how it would handle. Unfortunately, there are a few font issues--all the apostrophes turned into question marks. However, the converted EPUB handles better than a PDF on the Kobo reader: with the non-reflowing text and the constant side and up-and-down scrolling you'll have to do with a PDF, it seems worth reading past a few random ?s just so you don't have to see the document map pop up.

I bought Leah Braemel's Tangled Past off the Kobo site. It downloaded smoothly, and without issue. It even included the cover image, which looks great in black and white. The screen is e-ink, which gives off little to no glare from the matte-finished screen. With a tap in the middle of the screen, you can change the font size and style, with 7 fonts to choose from. You can also adjust the line spacing, margins and justification. For someone who fiddles with that all day, this was a great feature for me.

It's a little odd at first tapping to turn pages. You can also tap and slide for that "authentic book" feeling. You have to apply just the right pressure, though. A hard tap sometimes won't do it, and a soft tap might not register, either. I also found that if I gripped the edge of the frame near the screen too hard, the page would flip. (The book is that good!) It's not too difficult to get over, though. It beats getting paper cuts.

One of my favorite things about the Kobo product is that, with ebooks downloaded from the Kobo site, it keeps track wirelessly of where your bookmarks are. I downloaded the Kobo app for free on my smartphone so I could read on the bus if I didn't have the reader on me. Anytime I read off my phone, when I started up the ereader later--and was connected to the internet wirelessly--it would notify me that the bookmark had changed and I didn't have to search for my page. I haven't quite figured out how to do that the other way, however--my phone does not automatically sync up to the last page I read on my ereader. Guess that's one I'll have to figure out.

The Kobo Touch includes a little bonus program called Kobo Sketch, which is a simple line-sketching touch tool that's more like a freestyle Etch-A-Sketch than any competent art program. Not exactly sophisticated, but it might keep a kid occupied for a minute while you're in the checkout line.

One of the only things I have to complain about with this Kobo reader is that it didn't come with a sleeve or case of some kind, and the quilted white back gets dirty pretty quickly. Kobo cases and accessories on the Indigo.ca website start at $12. I wouldn't have minded paying an addition $5 on top of the very affordable $139 price tag for a little drawstring bag or something.

Overall, the Kobo Touch eReader does what it's supposed to do with little muss and fuss, and I look forward to reading a whole lot more now. I give it 4 Vs.

 

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Directed by David Yates
VVV

As I write this review, I know I'll probably get flak for my lack of enthusiasm, my cynicism, my utterly meh opinion of this movie. But before anyone starts throwing cruciatus curses at me, let me start by saying this.

The Harry Potter movies aren't the greatest movies (ducks a fireball), but the stories are good stories and, more importantly, the franchise has raised an entire generation of readers and fans more devoted than any other series of books has ever produced. On this merit alone does the franchise earn at least four stars.

Down to the basics: HP 7.2 takes off where part one left off. There are chase scenes with lots of eye-popping 3-D graphics, epic battle scenes that look like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, loveable bumbling heroes, kissing scenes, Christ imagery...everything a good end to an epic should have.

For people who've read the books, boils down the original work as much as possible in order to wrap up all the loose ends in just over 2 hours. For non-HP fans, you'll follow along easily enough, assuming you've suspended disbelief over the past seven movies.

I don't need to say too much more because chances are you'll go see these movies regardless of what critics say. Let me be clear: it wasn't a bad movie. But it wasn't a great movie, either. What it was was the journey's end and we, as fans and viewers, had to see it through to the bittersweet end just as Harry did.

I've said this before: perhaps we've all grown up too much to feel the magic. In HP7.2, we're not given an opportunity to be surprised by this world anymore because, well, it wasn't the world we first walked into. It's terrifying and dreary, a wizarding world we really don't want to be in. The final battle lies ahead: we know we have to face all those characters we know and love, face inevitable losses and death and tragedy.

And yet, the tension of the inevitable face-off between the Boy Who Lived and You-Know-Who was completely missing. By the time Harry makes the decision to face Voldemort, I was pretty much yelling "Get it over with!" Not just because I knew what was going to happen, but also because I was bored by all the sitting and staring and exposition moments. And speaking of boredom, I think Voldemort stopped being scary right around the time we saw him with the evil league of evil having dinner at the Malfoys' dining table. How powerful can You-Know-Who possibly be if all he has are wand-waving goths around him doing his bidding? And how does Ralph Fiennes breathe with his nose smooshed down like that?

There are still great moments, and I admit, I cried a little. Alan Rickman's performance and flashback moments are the most touching in the series. And there is a huge sense of finality and loss in the end. We'll now be relegated to watching Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in other roles now...or else fade into obscurity, tragedy, or worse...

More than a week later, I still can't quite articulate everything about what I did or did not like about this film. Perhaps I am still in shock that there won't be another HP film to look forward to.

Or perhaps I'm simply grateful it is all over, and now we can move on.

It was a tough long weekend for me, so hubby took me out to see two movies I've been aching to watch.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall
VVV

The latest installment of the POTC series...ah, you know what? I don't really need to talk about it. They're looking for the fountain of youth. There's maps, magic, ships, races, mermaid...all the quest needed was a big rolling rock and a bullwhip. Depp is his usual Jack Sparrow self; Geoffrey Rush is his usual Barbossa self; Penelope Cruz is a pretty throwaway character whose name escapes me; and Ian McShane as the dastardly Blackbeard is, well...appropriately piratical, but he'll never hold a candle to Bill Nighy's Davy Jones.

It's hard to be surprised by anything in this franchise anymore, and I think they exhausted their story arc and character development in the final act of the original trilogy. But regardless of what I say, people are going to flock to see this film, and I won't discourage it. It's fun, action-packed, and utterly mindless. The perfect summer brain sorbet, as long as you don't have high expectations.

 

Hanna
Directed by Joe Wright
VVVV

I only heard about this film through accolades on Twitter, so the film has word of mouth--or Tweet--to thank for me actually going to see this. The innocuous title and poster tell you nothing. In fact, it's a coming-of-age tale in which a teenage girl, raised her whole life in a remote cabin by her father, sets out to get revenge for her slain mother against the woman who killed her.

This could have easily been made into a crass Hollywood big-budget picture, but instead, it was a subtle, well thought out, well-captured look at an extraordinary girl trying to make it through an ordinary world. Saorise Ronan played her role adeptly, walking the fine line between innocent and creepy. Costars including Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett (who I kept thinking was a poor man's Cate Blanchett when in fact it really was her) and the talented Tom Hollander add a wonderful array of challenges for Hanna to overcome.

It's a very different kind of film, but it's smart and uplifting, with enough action and drama to go around. I'd call this the date movie of the summer--a film that everyone can enjoy without mindless eyeball surfing, unnecessary explosions or gratuitous gore.

Thor
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
VVV1/2

I consider myself a comic book nerd, but admittedly I haven't read any of the comic books featuring heroes from the Avengers team. Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk...none of them every really appealed to me the way Marvel's X-Men or DC's Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman did.

Considering that superpowered god-like characters populate much of the DC universe, it's hard to figure out why I had such low interest in the son of Odin. Maybe it was the winged helmet, the girly locks of golden hair, the red cape that made him look fabulous is a way that really wasn't that flattering.

The movie version, however, distills the origin tale down to a palatable hero's journey. Branagh does an excellent job of presenting Thor to the audience in a perfect two-hour package that will lead into the Avengers movie quite smoothly.

Briefly: Thor is the heir to the throne of Asgard, another world ruled by viking-type people with crazy magic and science. His father, Odin, played by the venerable Anthony Hopkins, deems him unworthy and casts him out to exile on Earth. There, he meets scientist Jane, played by a charming-as-ever Natalie Portman, whose research into the phenomena that brought Thor to Earth has been confiscated by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Some stuff happens, and there's lots of big fist fights, explosions, shiny teleportation, etc. It's not particularly complex, and you can pretty much tell who the bad guy is within the first five minutes. Like most superhero movies now, you can count on lots of action and a little melodrama. Actually, in Thor's case, there was lots of it, including the fall-to-your-knees, roar-at-the-sky bit that's a prerequisite of all dramatic comic book moments.

But that's half the beauty of this film. Chris Hemsworth does an excellent job of not taking himself too seriously in this role as the really unbelievable God of Thunder. I mean, seriously. He's a really, really, REALLY hot guy who swings a hammer and uses it to fly. Any minute now, you think he's going to turn to the camera and wink. If Branagh had tried to do this any other way, the movie would have been dull and stilted.

Overall, Thor was fun and worth the two hours it took. It will be interesting to see Hemsworth on screen with his fellow Avengers, and the franchise is sure to take off with all the effort they've put into the characters. If, of course, you don't like superhero movies... well, then, there's only one real reason to go see this film:

 

 

 

Rango (animated film)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
VVV1/2

Apparently, Westerns are becoming a thing for me.

Verbinski's animated feature Rango is fresh, fun and quirky. While a little drawn-out as many of Verbinski's works have been (see the first Pirates of the Caribbean), the film remains engaging enough to sustain an audience accustomed to slick, eye-popping computer animated films.

Johnny Depp voices a lonely, directionless, sheltered chameleon who by twists of fate is caught in a Wild West-style desert town populated by other talking animals. He takes on the name Rango and becomes town sheriff, trying to discover the mystery of the town's disappearing water supply.

What makes Rango interesting is that there are real moments of humanity displayed by each of the town's beastly CGI inhabitants. I will tip my hat to Verbinski for his method: instead of isolating the voice actors in sound studios, he had them all act out their roles as an ensemble line so that the artists would have character references and real human guides for actions and emotions. You can watch a demo on IMDB.

While the story is simple enough, and has a few similarities to the tale from Flushed Away, the character and set design is phenomenal, with a real worn-out, dried up feel to everything. The comedy is almost too subtle for a younger audience, but given the right mood, will probably make you laugh out loud. The action sequences leave you breathless--there were some especially good effects I could have sworn had been filmed live. Johnny Depp is as much a chameleon in this voice acting role as he is in all his films. You'd never know it was him if it hadn't been plastered all over the place.

The one drawback to this film is in Verbinski's meandering and sometimes unnecessary dialogue. He's got some great one liners ("That, sir, is what we call a mammogram!") and asides, but it detracts from the ongoing story, weighs down the action and makes severely emotional moments too unwieldy.

Even so, this was an enjoyable flick for adults and children, though you may want to leave the really young ones at home--a lot of them got restless fast on Friday night.

For the hubby’s birthday, I bought him Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games for PS3. He’d been coveting it for a while, being a fan of the game developer’s other titles including the Grand Theft Auto series.

Red Dead Redemption is an open-concept third-person shooter/adventure-type video game set in the final days of the Wild West. You play John Marston, a reformed hoodlum forced to go after one of your ex-posse buddies. During your quest, you have to complete tasks for various people, accumulate weapons, ride hither and tither on your horse, and so forth.

I think the best review and summary is still here. (Warning: profanity laden, but hilarious.)

Generally, I don’t play a lot of newer video games—I’ve always preferred the old point-and-click or type-based PC adventure stories of the late eighties and early nineties made by Sierra. They had linear paths and set story lines. You had to do everything in sequence, and any deviation from that would likely result in a run time error. RDR, however, gives you a lot more leeway in terms of when and how you complete missions. You don’t even have to play the set storyline, as long as you’re content to ride across vast, scenic southern desert plains, hunt animals, pick flowers, collect bounties, and stop the occasional horse thief, rape, stage coach hijacking, or runaway bandit.

Which is generally what I enjoy doing. Or what I now enjoy doing, after watching my husband get to the very end of the game.

CAUTION: MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT FOR RED DEAD REDEMPTION AHEAD

See, John Marston has a wife and son the government is holding hostage, to ensure you carry out your mission. After shooting your old friend dead, you get to go home, and there’s even a lovely, wistful song that plays as your ride your faithful horse across the lush landscape…but that’s not the end of the game.

Upon your return, you have to rebuild your ranch and your family’s trust in you—buy cattle to replenish your herd, do chores, accomplish various tasks for your family members. It’s all very domestic. Plus, you still have the whole world to explore and pick flowers in. There really doesn’t have to be an end.

Except there does.

After all, you’re a thug. A former wanted man. You’ve killed and maimed dozens in your quest for some skewed justice. So the government comes after you and your family at the ranch. An epic battle ensues. It’s just you and your son (but mostly you) against, like, forty guys. If you play through this mission, you will likely be killed a half dozen times before you actually get through it. But the gods of video games give you the power to come back to life and start at those blessed automatic save points, so all is well…for now….

The cut scene ensues. You get to the barn. You get your wife and son on a horse. You tell them not to worry. You kiss your wife goodbye and tell her you love her. You watch them ride away. John Marston is all alone now in the barn, surrounded by a dozen lawmen.

You know what? I can’t even go on. Here, watch it. (WARNING: graphic violence and blood)

I think I nearly burst out in tears when I saw this. How could you devote an entire game—hours and hours of game play—to helping/being this almost unstoppable (anti)hero and not have a happy ending? He was just getting his life back in order, reconnecting with his family and rebuilding his ranch. And then, unjustly, it’s all taken away from him. More importantly, it’s all taken out of your hands.

Therein lies the real tragedy of this epic. Up until that moment, you had a choice in almost all things: you could choose to help those in need, or ignore them, or shoot them in the back and take their belongings. There were consequences to your actions, whatever you chose to do. But in this final moment, you can’t run away. You can’t get on a horse and follow your wife and son. You can’t surrender, or even find a place to cower in fear. The computer gives you exactly one second—that gold-hued flash of dead-eye cognizance that slows down time enough for one final act of defiance—to realize how futile your actions are.

No chance to respawn. No save points to be reborn into. The video game gods decide that’s the end of Jack Marston’s journey. Game over.

I was shattered. Inconsolable. I nearly flung myself upon the screen and cried along with his wife.

But that’s not the end of the game.

You “return” as John’s son, Jack Marston, three years later after burying his mother. Young Jack has a mission, and it’s to find the man who killed his father. My husband played through these missions right to the final showdown. And even as the man’s body lay bleeding out in the dust, there was no satisfaction in revenge. No riding off into the sunset or even a chance to move on from there. That’s the end. That’s where the curtain comes down.

I was thoroughly disappointed. Playing Jack was not like playing John—and I came to the horrible conclusion that John could never be replaced. It didn’t have anything to do with an actual change in the character’s identity, age, experience, game play, or any of those things. Sure, I’d miss that horse-straddled gait, those scars and that gruff voice, but Jack looked enough like his father that those things could be overlooked. And anyhow, you still got to play and do the same things you did with John.

Rather, it was about the character arc and the stakes the senior Marston faced. I didn’t like Jack because the only thing he had to look forward to was a cold, empty vengeance with no consequences. He didn’t have anything to lose. And we really didn’t want to spend any more time with him performing the same drudging tasks we’d gone through with John. The end result: most people who’ve played RDR hate Jack for deigning to fill his father’s worn, dusty, blood-splattered boots.

So what does this all amount to? What did this time sink of a video game earn me except a flat butt, a lot of heartbreak and an inability to move on with my own saved missions, knowing what lies ahead for poor John Marston?

On the writing side of things, it turns out I learned that one’s emotional investment with one’s characters is dependent on their journeys and the stakes.

Not that those are the only things that makes a good story/video game—I wasn’t nearly as invested in Super Mario Bros., ever. The story is as two-dimensional as the characters themselves (despite being iconic). Sure, there is satisfaction when you finally save the princess, but really, who the heck cares? Mario didn’t exactly grow as a person (no mushroom jokes, please) and the only thing he ever had at risk was his own overall-covered hide.

In addition to character journeys and high stakes, good storytelling involves unpredictable outcomes. Will they/won’t they? is the classic sexual tension plot. “Will he defeat this dastardly villain?” is typical of adventure and crime-fighting genres. The higher the risk, and the more that the character is developed with flaws and foibles to interfere with the goal, the more in question those outcomes become.

When things end happily, it’s great; but when it ends tragically, shockingly, you mourn for them, with them. And you look for what’s next, what the characters will do now. Just think of the end of The Empire Strikes Back—arguably one of the most successful cliffhangers ever. Or look at any of Joss Whedon’s work: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is rife with twists and deaths and shockers that become pivotal to a season arc.

So all those hours spent on the couch riding mustangs across an alternate-universe Texas didn’t go to waste. I now have a plot bunny for a Western fantasy I want to work on. And I can now add "scarred reformed cowboy" to my list of men I admire as (anti)heroes.

At the very least, I learned this from John Marston: life sucks, but you make the best of what time you have. And then you die.

1 Comment

True Grit
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
VVVV1/2

I've never really thought about whether I actually enjoy Westerns or not. Something about the Wild West has always struck me as one big cliche.

But the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, ascends cliche and satire somehow, driving this otherwise unremarkable tale with characters that make us both laugh and cry, even as they seem to be half a second away from looking into the camera and winking.

The story's quite simple: Determined fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the man who murdered her father. Also in pursuit of the fugitive is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon). Misadventure, hilarity, and heart-wrenching drama ensue.

The Coen brothers do a phenomenal job of telling this story with their own quirky sense of humor. Why Hailee Steinfeld isn't on the marquis I do not understand, since the entire story is from her point of view and she does a bang-up job in the role. In fact, I'd almost say this was better as a young adult tale, full of adventure, personal growth and consequences.

Whether this film will garner any Oscars is up in the air; as a remake of an old John Wayne movie which was based on book, it's kind of hard to accept that the work is groundbreaking or fresh. But it was good. And it was totally worth watching.

Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
VVVV1/2

It's not hard to see why Black Swan will be nominated for an Oscar in Best Picture and Best Lead Actress for Natalie Portman. Obsession, alienation, and the slow spiral into madness are all hallmarks of previous Oscar noms. It doesn't hurt that there's a lesbian sex scene involving Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, either.

Briefly: Portman plays ballerina Nina Sayers, who is given the demanding role of the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake. The nearly virginal Nina struggles to embrace the dark side of her dual role of the black swan. She enters into a twisted relationship with Lily (Mila Kunis), a talented new ballerina who threatens to replace her in her highly coveted role. A demanding and deviant director and her overbearing former ballerina mother add to the pressures she places on herself to achieve perfection, and as opening night draws near, Nina slowly starts to lose her grasp of reality.

The direction and cinematography in this film was superb. From the cloying head shots to the jarring and sometimes nausea-inducing unsteady cam, this movie captured the ballerina's world view splendidly. The viewers were trapped in long shots of Portman's head, even as she performed, bringing the focus on her internal struggle rather than on the technical aspects of ballet.

Portman's performance is brilliant, her normally vibrant, strong-willed persona stashed away very effectively in her role as a woman-child buried by her own inhibitions and skewed ambition. She totally made me forget she was in those films we shall not speak of.

By the end of the second act, things start getting really trippy. I don't generally enjoy watching what I call "oogy movies"--you know, where you start to see things and wonder if YOU'RE the one who's going mad--and this was a real gut-twister of a head trip, but I still walked out of the film saying, "Yeah, even though I feel like I'm going to be sick, I enjoyed that."

I'm still feeling a little ill. In a good, I'm-going-to-have-nightmares-all-week kind of way, of course. But isn't that the stuff of Oscars?