Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Year's Eve on DVD

I never thought New Year's Eve would be good. For one, it's a movie that immediately dates itself by taking place on the eve of 2012. Who's going to want to ever watch it again? Two, another movie, Valentine's Day, was supposedly similar with its large cast of characters but rather inappropriate, from what I heard. I never saw it and didn't want to. I was afraid New Year's Eve would be on the inappropriate side, being a romantic comedy, and I probably wouldn't ever have watched it had it not been for my curiosity in its cast, a huge ensemble of people I'm vaguely familiar with including in no particular order Zac Efron, Cary Elwes, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Hilary Swank, and Lea Michele, just to name a few. Finally, did you ever hear anything about New Year's Eve after it came out? I think, if anything, I heard it was a flop.

I'm afraid all that most movies like this have going for them are their casts. The movie is often a one-deal show that draws an opening weekend crowd just because of the names in it but doesn't have enough substance to stand on its own two feet. It makes sense. You get all these big names, all far too famous to get anything but the major roles in a story. So, instead of creating a single story with a lot of characters, you have to create a mishmash of interconnected stories, each with its own two or three stars.

And to an extent, that's exactly what New Year's Eve is: a mishmash. But it's a surprisingly clean one with some unexpectedly heartfelt, tear-jerker stories: real-life snapshots of lives on the cusp of starting anew. It starts out a little disjointed, and not all the stories intersect, which might have been better. But for about ten different plots going on at once, it works thematically and emotionally. As a storyteller myself, I actually kind of liked it. Because each story's normal two-hour movie slot is drastically shortened to fit alongside everyone else's, the stories have to stay focused and emotionally engaging. That's what works for the movie.

I may never see it again and it will likely disappear off the grid, but it wasn't a waste of time or even a bore. When the movie season is slow (like October's scare fest), remember this one. Three stars.

The City's Son

One of the weirdest books I've read recently is The City's Son (The Skyscraper Throne, Book 1), a young adult novel by Tom Pollock. It's written in Great Britain's English and has a very modern European feel even though it's fantasy, adding to its foreignness. But writing and author aside, this is still one of the odder ideas I've come across, an idea that, incidentally, works really well.

Beth is more than a tagger, but she does like to leave her mark wherever she goes, beautiful pieces of graffiti, works of art, all over London. Usually, her friend Pen is right beside her. But when Pen inexplicably turns against her, Beth finds herself alone on the streets in a London suddenly more wild than she'd ever imagined. It begins with the ghost of a train and leads to a boy with cement in his skin and oil in his veins, the teenage Prince of the streets. She's only human, something she took for granted before, but there's a whole city of non-human beings dying under the destructive forces of the Crane King, and Beth isn't about to turn her back on them, especially when she has no one else.

I confess, this book took some getting used to. It's dark and gritty and sometimes just plain gross. There's a creature who animates himself (sometimes herself) with garbage and vermin. The Prince sweats oil. Certain babies are born into stone skins, crying from hunger and thirst, not knowing why the world is dark and cold (as a mom, that got me the worst). But gross factor aside, it was rather fascinating to see the underbelly of a city like London come to life. Everything you might take for granted or downright ignore is what this book is about. A drunken bum actually plays an important role, and it has nothing to do with being drunk or a bum. This is imagination, and I haven't revealed the half of it. I wouldn't want to spoil it!

At the same time, I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone. It's dark. The presentation and ideas are sometimes mature. There's an implication of rape and another scene where two unmarried teens almost have sex (not nearly the same level as rape, but it's still on my list of moral degradation). There are gods and goddesses, but in this case, all that means is that they are super powerful beings who have followers and worshipers. (It's not really an attempt at explaining religion. For all intents and purposes, this is a strictly secular book, which I appreciate better than books that try to explain and rationalize the Christian God.) Finally, the dark roast icing on the espresso cake is one particular all-controlling, pain-inflicting villain I'd rather meet less than most other novels' bad guys.

If you're looking for something fresh, try this novel that conjures images of anything but. It's surprising, and surprises aren't so bad in a market inundated with trends.

Three and a half stars. Available in September.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty on DVD

Sometimes movies are just beautiful, especially animation from Miyazaki and Japan's Studio Ghibli. That attention to detail in a hand-drawn world is utterly captivating. You don't want to look away for fear of missing something, and that something can be as simple as a droplet of water falling off a leaf. In the case of 2010's The Secret World of Arrietty, it is.

I confess, despite prior enjoyment of Miyazaki's films, I was reluctant to watch this one. I didn't love Ponyo like I do some of his others, so I wasn't sure I would like this storyline. (My husband tells me this is not strictly a Miyazaki film. Miyazaki is apparently only a writer on this one. Does it make any difference? He influenced and helped create it, right?)

Arrietty is a borrower, a little person who lives under the floor of the humans' house and borrows and survives on things the humans don't need. At fourteen years of age, she is old enough to go on borrowing trips with her dad. On her first trip, the new boy who's come to the house sees her, an occurrence that usually has grave consequences in the borrowers' world. Arrietty doesn't know what to do when this boy seems so intent on just being her friend.

The plot isn't complicated, but it's simply engaging. Part of the magic of this film is looking at all the detail that goes into creating a miniature house out of big human items. The story matters, yes, but the details add a fullness that isn't there in many American animated movies with fast-paced, seizure-inducing action.

Having said that, though, I think this movie appealed to me more than some of Miyazaki's others because it is so Western. There aren't weird monsters in it or foreign ideas and themes. It's based on a Western book, much like the other Miyazaki film I love so much: Howl's Moving Castle. This made it accessible to me while it still captured the peacefulness of Eastern culture.

In addition to being aesthetically beautiful, this movie's inner beauty shines in its values. Arrietty doesn't always follow all the rules, but she isn't at odds with her parents. When it matters most, she obeys them, which I appreciate. How many movies can you think of where the kids don't break all the rules and get congratulated for it?

The Secret World of Arrietty is rated G and much more appropriate for kids than some of the odder Miyazaki films. Whether you're a kid or an adult, this is an hour and a half well-spent. Four stars.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mirror Mirror on DVD

Julia Roberts is a treat to watch in Mirror Mirror, which I just saw for the first time on DVD. The movie was released in theaters earlier this year. Of the two Snow White movies this year, the other one was the one I wanted to see. But since that one disappointed, I thought I'd try this. I wanted to like it, but cheese (people's teeth literally sparkle) just isn't my style. The movie was beautiful if you like that fake look. I cannot call the costumes beautiful, however. The gowns were even more cheesy than the movie. A concession: I did like Snow White's attire when she was with the dwarfs, and I liked the prince's clothes...when they were on him.

That's not to say there's anything inappropriate about the movie. The prince just happens to get mugged and stripped to his modest underclothes by a band of "giant dwarfs"...a couple times. It's definitely funny, but I admit, I like my fairytales to be more serious. I did think that the dwarfs were done well. I don't enjoy the original Disney dwarfs, but there's not much about the original Disney Snow White that I like. It's funny to me that this year gave us one TV show and two movies based on my least favorite Disney princess. I just don't get it. But I do keep watching. I suppose there's a part of me that wants to see if someone can just make the story more interesting and original. So far, TV is winning with Once Upon a Time (though the royal couple's affair isn't helping me like this princess any better).

Mirror Mirror does show a dark side briefly when the evil queen's mirror image magically attacks Snow White and the dwarfs with her marionette puppets. The mirror image queen is creepy, but the whole idea of the scene is just so ludicrous that it matches the tone of the rest of the movie.

I didn't dislike the whole production. I can take cheesy movies if they have serious characters or scenes to balance it out, but Mirror Mirror is all fun and games. Interesting enough to watch, but not a keeper for me. Three stars.

Total Recall in Theaters Now

Just so you know, I did not see the first Total Recall, so I went into this movie with fresh eyes. The previews made it look pretty exciting, but nowadays, there are mainly two kinds of previews. There are previews that hook you with the first ten or twenty minutes of a movie and don't really give anything away. And then there are previews that tell you the whole story in a nutshell. They are great summaries, but they spoil too much. Total Recall's preview was a bit like the latter. Actually, it was somewhat worse than the latter. It made me think the movie would go one way and be more complicated. In reality, they were faking it. The movie was straightforward with barely any twists and turns and ended up disappointing. I don't think there was any way the movie, as it is, could have won with me. On one hand, I was disappointed that the story wasn't more complicated. But if it had been more complicated, it would have been one of those movies that messes with your mind and makes you wonder what's reality (like Inception, but Inception did it right), and in this case, having everything be in a guy's head would have been even more disappointing.

The cool factor of this movie is definitely the setting (layers upon layers of city suspended in the air!) and the chase scenes that go through it. Kate Beckinsale isn't a vampire this time, but she's as scary as one and looks as good as any vampire ever did (She's 39!).

Not as cool are scenes of nudity and the actual logistics of this science fiction flick, based on a story by Philip K. Dick. I don't mind suspending disbelief for science fiction, but it is a little beyond that to have people commute to work in a 17-minute trip called The Fall through the core of the earth. Cool, yes, but way beyond believable.

Other plot holes make this a story you don't want to think too much about, but it doesn't seem to have been trying too hard to stimulate any brain function. If you watch it, enjoy the scenery and the pretty people (including Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel) beating each other up, but don't expect much else. This is not one of Philip K. Dick's better stories, but maybe the written story is better.

Rated PG-13. Two hours. Two and a half stars. Wait for the DVD.

Carnival of Souls

By the title Carnival of Souls, you can imagine that this young adult novel, by popular author Melissa Marr, is a bit gritty, indulging in sensationalism and sensuality. But it could have been much worse. For a novel with a carnival where you can buy and sell murder or pleasure, this story is not as graphic as it could be. The main characters do not have sex within this particular story, though they have before, and we're not talking about sex strictly between lovers but also about sex for money. The violence is slightly more graphic with fights to the death.

As far as I know, Carnival of Souls is the beginning of a new series and is not part of the Wicked Lovely books or any other series of Marr's. It tells the intertwining stories of several characters on the cusp of adulthood. Mallory is a 17-year-old, raised by her adoptive witch father in the human world and trained to fight an evil she barely understands to protect something the witch once stole. Aya is a ruling-class daimon, so she could have an easy life, if she wishes, as long as she is willing to breed. But Aya's most terrible secret would be revealed in her child; therefore, the only option left open to her is entering the fights in the hopes she can win a place in The City's governing body. Kaleb is a cur, almost the lowest caste of daimon, forced to hire himself out as assassin or lover just to feed himself and his pack. In the fights, he has a chance to raise his station in life or at least die on his own terms. He's also falling in love with the girl he's been contracted to kill. Daimons rule The City. Witches have been exiled to the human world, where their power remains strong. And these three characters, among others, have been raised on one side or the other to fight a war begun long before their time.

Melissa Marr is quite the storyteller. Her stories are rich in detail and full of life. She mixes fantasy with the real world in a way that fits more into contemporary fantasy than the trendy paranormal genre. But this particular story was, for me at least, a little over-the-top. It's hard to root for a character who kills for hire and prostitutes himself, even if the world is such that he has no other choice. (I think there's always a choice. Isn't death better than selling your soul that way?)

Part of it comes down to there being not enough internal struggle over these big moral questions. It bothers me when so many young adult books are full of questions but no solid answers or no strong delineation between right and wrong. The gray area is dangerous because there are clearly things that are wrong in the real world that may or may not be wrong in fiction, but then there are things that might be wrong in both but that are portrayed in such a way as to be appealing to readers. I'm not saying books make people evil. I think, rather, that our books reflect and support our culture. If sex outside of marriage is okay in our culture, no one thinks twice about it in a book. But reading about it in a book reinforces the idea that it's okay. (Have you read other reviews by me? Big soapbox.) Anyway, I can't recommend a book, even if it is well-written and I enjoyed parts of it, if there's too much moral gray area. If this book were a movie, I'd probably have to give it an R rating.

Moving on...as you know, if you've read past reviews, I'm not a fan of witches. I tolerate them better in fantasy because there, a witch is just another creature of the world. In some cases, though, the use of witches toes the line between fantastical creature and something out of the real world. Again, I don't like the moral gray area. This book is more fantastical than not, but some elements are borderline. If that was the only thing I didn't like about the book, though, it wouldn't keep me from recommending it.

By the way, it seems to be a trend lately for fantastical beings to take credit for real historical events, for instance, the Salem witches. The first time I read something like that, it was kind of cool, smudging the line between fiction and that which we can't explain in the real world. But it's been used enough (say, in the last three books that I've read) that it's not clever anymore.

One last issue I had with the book has to do with the romance, but I don't want to spoil too much. I think it will get better as the series progresses, but at this point, it's a love based on deception and animal attraction. There's also an annoying sexism in The City, where females are viewed as property for breeding. I'm certain the author will have more to say on this subject, as she already has, but readers will have to wait for future books to get any satisfying resolution there.

So, I don't recommend this book for the average young adult fiction reader. But, having given you fair warning, if none of the above bothers you in fiction, I'll just say Melissa Marr knows how to hook a reader. Though I likely won't get a chance to read the rest of this series, I'm still interested in knowing how it turns out.

This first installment is available in September.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

False Memory

False Memory, a young adult science fiction novel by Dan Krokos, is one of those 3-star books I enjoy reading in the moment but that don't intrigue me enough to follow them up when the next in the series comes out. I was actually intrigued by the set-up for the next book in this series, and if I'd had a copy on my shelf, I would have dived right into it, no problem. But by the time this one's sequel comes out, I'll have plenty of other books competing for my attention. Since I read advance reader's copies, sequels don't even cross my radar unless I make a point of looking for them after reading a story I'm not ready to let go of. Most likely, I'll never even know when the sequel to False Memory comes out.

False Memory (and I'll get to my opinion of the title in just a moment) begins with 17-year-old Miranda North waking up and not remembering who she is except for her name. She recognizes that a mall is a mall and a cop is a cop, but her past is blank. When she accidentally causes mass panic with her own mind and easily wins hand-to-hand combat, she realizes she is more than your average girl. But it all feels right, and as she returns to the only world she's ever known with a boy just like her, her memories start to come back in patches. The question is, is it enough? Her childhood friends are at odds with each other, but that's nothing compared to pressures from outside the group. Someone wants them dead while another wants to use them for nefarious purposes. Miranda's fractured mind follows along as best it can as her team deals with its troubles, but there's no doubt, some things have changed for her. Can she go back to the person she was, or is she irreparably altered into someone new?

Interesting premise. I like the whole idea of someone starting over when memory fails her. But, tell me, why, oh, why would you go and name a book with memory loss as the premise False Memory? From the beginning, I suspected Miranda's memories! The title felt like a major give-away for someone who hates spoilers. Would you name Star Wars The Boy Whose Father was Darth Vader? So, then, why would you tell us right off the bat that your main character who's struggling with her memory might be remembering things that aren't true? It doesn't make sense. I won't say whether or not it mattered in the end or if it was a real spoiler or not. The point is, it felt like a spoiler, and rather than wondering, I was just waiting for it to happen.

Title aside, there are pieces of this story, or even just lines here and there, that are confusing. If I didn't understand something, I left it and read on, and overall, the story makes good enough sense. There is just something in the writing of it that isn't completely smooth and clear.

My one other problem with the book is its treatment of death. In the opening pages, Miranda accidentally kills people. It's shocking, yes, but I don't necessarily mind the murder being present in a young adult novel. What I need to see, however, is the murderer's reactions. Is she horrified? Does she care? Does it change her? When given the opportunity, does she murder again? I'm sad to say that Miranda's character does not ace these questions. Yes, she feels awful about the initial deaths, and yes, she doesn't want to do anything like that again. But later, she easily kills people who get in her way, and she hardly thinks twice about it. She's trained to be a weapon, but especially after the loss of memories, I would think she'd be more horrified by what she's capable of. The people she kills later in the book are not civilians. They are basically nameless, faceless soldiers, but they are still humans. Does it make it okay to kill people if they would kill you first?

And here's another question the book raises and seemingly answers: is it okay to kill a few so that more don't die? Sacrifice a few for the greater good? It's still murder. I know it's not an easy question, but the lack of internal struggle over it is more of a problem to me than the presence of it in the book. Make the characters tackle the big questions; that's good. But don't raise big questions if you can't deliver an honest discussion of right and wrong. Comparatively, I was less bothered by some of the brutality in The Hunger Games. There, the discussion of good and evil is clear, and the main character has qualms about killing, even for survival.

False Memory is the equivalent of a popcorn movie. A bit of entertainment without much heavy thinking required. This book is released this month.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I wasn't sure I would enjoy this book about teenagers turned into human weapons in a military world. It all depends on the presentation. In the case of Insignia, by S.J. Kincaid, I was pleasantly surprised. The story is more about the characters than the tech, so even a person in unfamiliar territory, like I was, can figure out what's going on.

Tom is a gamer and a con. He can make a person think it's their idea that he's beating them out of all their own money until it's too late. That's why he's the perfect candidate for a school that trains teenagers to be the new soldier of World War III, a war fought entirely for resources in space by machines controlled from the ground. No bloodshed. At least, not yet. Tom jumps at the chance to leave his gambling, drinking dad and escape a life of moving from hotel to hotel in the hopes they will win big. But he's not prepared for the catch. Is he willing to give everything up to play the game of his life?

Add to this scenario a mix of interesting, likeable characters, and you have a story that's not about fighting World War III, but rather about friendships. It's funny with great dialog. It's a little techy, but just enough to be fascinating. And it's a series, so if you like it, there's more to come!

Four stars for a unique young adult novel that doesn't rely on romance (though there's still a bit) for forward drive!

The Dark Knight Rises in Theaters Now

Despite paying an exorbitant amount for an exceptionally uncomfortable theater in which a quarter of the screen was blocked by the head in front of me and the seat next to me competed for attention with the sounds of explosions at every infinitesimal movement of its occupant...despite all that, I really enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. Batman has become one of my favorite superheroes, ever since I watched Batman Begins, my favorite of the Batman movies. I love Batman's origin story, and I loved watching his progression from fearful kid to trained warrior in that first movie. The Dark Knight, contrary to public sentiment, was not my favorite of the two. The Joker was great, but there wasn't enough Batman, especially with the internal conflict I loved in the first movie.

The Dark Knight Rises brings us almost full circle to a broken shell of a man who must rise up once more and make his last stand. Although I think I still like the first movie of director Christopher Nolan's trilogy best, this last installment is a close second.

The Dark Knight Rises begins years after Harvey Dent's transformation and subsequent death by Batman's hand at the end of the second movie, but the plot picks up right where it left off. Batman is a ghost of the past, seemingly no longer needed, an outlaw, actually, in a world he helped create, a world where Harvey Dent is the hero of Gotham City. But a new enemy is surfacing, one from the League of Shadows with a chip on his shoulder and a vendetta to carry out. As Bruce Wayne's already crumbling world falls completely apart around him, he must find the will and strength to save his city one more time.

I don't think it's spoiling much to say that Bruce Wayne is far from on top of his game in this movie. He's no where near as fit as Batman should be (although you wouldn't guess that from looking at Christian Bale alone, as his arms remain as well-toned and muscled as ever); he needs a cane to even walk. He's pulled away from people and life, and once again, we get to see the tormented, internally conflicted Batman I love. It's not that I love his suffering. I love that while he's suffering, he still manages to become more than human with no special powers but a keen mind and a will for justice.

(SPOILERS ahead) I confess, I was a little disappointed at first when Bruce Wayne puts on the cape again. He's been hobbling around for years, and suddenly, with no brushing up on his training, he's Batman again? I didn't buy it, and fortunately, the movie doesn't make you. (SPOILER ALERT!) Batman fails, and that's when it gets good. I won't say more than that. It's a fine piece of storytelling that stands on its own two (or three, in this case, if you include the whole trilogy) feet. If you haven't seen the first two movies, that's where you should start.

There are some fun cameo appearances from the first two movies in this one, and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is brilliant, putting that wide smile to perfect use in a more believable role than some of hers I've seen since her princess days.

The villain, Bane, is more than one-dimensional, too. He has a story worth paying attention to, but it would be spoiling to say more. I love complex villains. In some ways, I think Bane is more complex than the Joker. (Minor SPOILER alert!) The Joker was mostly insane and completely heartless. Bane, as you will come to discover, does have some sort of a heart.

This movie runs long at 164 minutes but doesn't feel like it (the only indication being a crook in your neck when you walk out of aforementioned theater). It's rated PG-13, mostly for violence, of which there is quite a bit (though nothing justifying the censorship this movie has been getting). There's also an implication of a sex scene (with nothing shown), and Imdb.com says there's language, though I confess it didn't cross my radar enough for me to remember. And just an interesting piece of trivia: this movie reprises some key actors from Christopher Nolan's Inception, which I also loved.

Finally, if you haven't seen this movie yet, there's one thing you really want to know, right? What happens to Batman? I can't tell you, but it's worth finding out. And all the better on the big screen.