Saturday, September 29, 2012

Battleship on DVD

Wow, I just finished watching Battleship on DVD, and I'm so excited that this movie is so much better than I thought it could be. I mean, it's crazy to base a movie off a game, let alone this one, but whoever thought up the plot had a lot of fun and stepped outside the box (the game box, that is), while also leaving in one very clever nod to the game as we know it. I'm impressed.

What makes any war or alien invasion movie good is a narrow focus, especially on character, and Battleship does just that. For reasons we don't know (and are never really told), Alex Hopper has made one big mistake out of his life. As a last-ditch effort, his brother recruits him to the Navy, but even the Navy can't reform him. It's not until Alex is trapped in a bubble on the ocean with alien invaders that he has a chance to try to redeem himself and make a final stand that will count.

The talented cast of characters includes memorable roles from Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard, Tadanobu Asano, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker as the love interest, and Taylor Kitsch as Alex Hopper, just to name a few. Battleship is rated PG-13, mostly for intense sci-fi action. People die, but thankfully, it's not a complete disaster movie where half the cast is left at the end (let me amend that to the cast we care about). It runs long at slightly over two hours but doesn't feel like it, giving us just enough emotional drama to make us care and then filling in the rest with weird aliens and lots of stuff blowing up.

Sure, to some extent, it's a popcorn movie. You probably don't want to think too hard about logistics. But if you're okay with Dr. Who (Great Britain's sci-fi show about an alien who saves the universe over and over again; if you've never heard of it, you're missing out), this won't bother you.

If you are familiar with Hasbro's Battleship game (And who isn't? Or am I dating myself here?), you probably think this is the corniest idea for a movie yet, worse than making one off a theme park ride. But I suggest you give it a try. One thing can be said for sure about this type of movie: it's pure entertainment. You might even want to dust off those old game pieces when you're done; it's that inspiring.

Three and a half stars.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Destiny Binds (Timber Wolves, Book 1)

First of all, thank you to my friend Nathan who picked up this book, signed and all, for me at Gen Con this year. It was very thoughtful of him, and it's right up the alley of what I read.

Tammy Blackwell's first book in her Timber Wolves trilogy, Destiny Binds, begins the story of a girl named Scout who thinks the weirdest thing in her life is her ghostly looks...until Alex and his dangerous-looking brother Liam come along. Then people start acting strangely. Her non-biological "twin" brother Jase and his cousin Charlie, Scout's lifelong crush, forbid her to go anywhere near Alex, which even though he's the hottest new thing in school, isn't a problem for Scout. After all, Liam scares her, too. But when, through circumstances outside her control, Scout gets to know Alex better, she realizes how much she likes him. What's more, he likes her...a lot. The fact that Alex turns into a wolf during the full moon isn't what makes Scout afraid. It's what her brother and cousin might do that worries her, especially since she hasn't quite decided if her love for Alex is enough to erase her love for Charlie.

The plot itself is rather standard for young adult paranormal romance (new kid in school, hot supernatural beings, love triangle, life-or-death secrets). And werewolves are a trend that has come and gone (to be fair, this book was published in 2011). Still, the book stands on its own two feet through well-defined characters readers can identify with.

One thing this book really has going for it is its focus on relationships. The ties between Scout and her loved ones are strong, well-developed, and believable. Scout isn't a loner who needs a boyfriend to fulfill her. She has an overprotective but caring brother, an annoying but loveable little sister, a close girlfriend who isn't just a prop, and peers with distinctive quirks (read the book's first line, and you'll know what I mean). The parents don't factor into this story much, but I suppose you can't have everything. Scout herself isn't one-dimensional. She's intelligent, studious, and athletic. She's into martial arts. She doesn't consider herself a beauty nor does she surround herself with people who are (it's a bonus that Alex is beautiful, but that's not what gets her).

I was pleased with the moral direction of the book. It doesn't pretend teenagers aren't hormonal, but neither does it cross the line. And every time it gets close to that line, the author has her teenagers think about what they are doing. Maybe that doesn't seem realistic in today's sex-driven culture, but I like it. What's unrealistic is accepting that teenagers can't help their sexual impulses. Hormones do not trump the ability to think. They make it harder, sure, but not impossible.

I know only a little about this author. I know she is a librarian who wrote the book for the young adults in her area. I don't want to assume anything about her, for instance if she's Christian or not. There are references to church in the book, which doesn't necessarily mean anything. What I'm getting at is that the book feels very family-friendly with the emphasis on family relationships, the mention of church, the kissing-only make-out sessions. Yet, I don't feel like it sacrifices anything by leaving out the sex. The romance is still as steamy as it needs to be (in fact, still more than I'm strictly comfortable with) for its young adult readers. I wish more authors would exercise this tact. I can't speak for the other books in the series, but this one, at least, passes the morality test.

Plot-wise, parts of this book made me skeptical. I thought, I've seen this in that book, and that in another. It didn't feel like anything new or unique. But as I read further, I got caught up in the lives of the characters, in the punchy dialog and Scout's humorous narrative voice, and in the secrets and drama. The end sets up the rest of the trilogy so tantalizingly, leaving me, at least, with burning questions! I can't share them with you because that would be spoiling. (What a terrible ending, and I mean that in the best possible way...I think. Aaagh!) But suffice it to say, I'm curious about where Tammy Blackwell goes from here. Luckily for us, the entire trilogy is now out, so if you read this book and enjoy it, you don't have to wait for more.

Tammy Blackwell's books are available on Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle, and you can look her up at

A solid three-star read.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't Turn Around

Don't Turn Around is a title that implies you won't be able to put this book down. I'm not sure it completely lives up to its hopes, but it's a solid, three-star young adult read with a steady plot that doesn't rely on romance to move forward.

Peter is a rich kid who hacks into secret files and subsequently gets a houseful of thugs making threats. Noa is on the opposite end of life. She's a foster kid, living carefully on her own, a member of Peter's internet hackers' group, when she wakes one day to find herself strapped to a lab table. Though they don't know each other by face or real name, they will have to trust each other to figure out what dark secrets they have unwittingly unearthed before their pursuers catch up with them.

This book is good enough for the first in a series, but author Michelle Gagnon will have to pick up the pace in following books. The danger is real enough. People die, after all. But the secrets behind everything need to be bigger. Stakes have to be higher. I confess, I wanted something a little bit more science-fictioney than what I got. Maybe I read too much paranormal now, but the answers just aren't quite crazy enough, weird enough, awe-inspiring enough. The end of the book opens a new set of problems, but is it enough to hook the readers? Only the sequel knows. This book is available this month.

Premium Rush in Theaters Now

If you like bicycles and going fast, you'll like the movie Premium Rush, in theaters now. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee (yes, like the coyote), a likeable and dynamic New York City bike messenger who'd rather ride with one set gear and no brakes at 50 miles per hour than wear a suit and sit at a desk. I mean, if you put it that way, who wouldn't? But one day, his job lands him in more trouble than he's bargained for. When a dirty cop tries to stop him from delivering a package across town, Wilee becomes involved in a race that's about more than doing his job. It's about saving lives before he gets a bullet in his own head.

Premium Rush is a popcorn movie. The plot is relatively simple, though somewhat unique, probably appealing most to sporty types. The issues at stake are almost bigger than the movie, but that gives an otherwise potentially ho-hum movie about riding bicycles at super-fast speeds between New York City taxis (which is cool, yes, but only for about five minutes) an extra edge. It's an action thriller with a bit of romance, the sweat and blood kind, which again probably doesn't appeal to everyone.

(Minor SPOILERS) At the end you can't think too hard about the movie because then you might wonder what the whole point was for Wilee to risk his life (because the person who sent him with the package arrives on the scene herself, so why didn't she deliver her own package and avoid calling attention to it by having a middleman?).

The movie is rated PG-13 but does have violence and language, including the f-word. It makes the police seem either stupid or evil, which I don't particularly like. Breaking the law becomes fine if you have a higher purpose, but that's very subjective. Who's to say that higher purpose is actually right?

So, the morals of the movie aren't great, and the action is so-so. There's no rush to see Premium Rush, but if you have the money, an hour and a half, and the inclination, it's as good an excuse as any to eat popcorn, especially during this time of year's movie "dry season."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting on DVD

In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I'm a very emotional movie watcher. I really get into my movies, and I don't mind a good cry. It's actually kind of cathartic for me. What to Expect When You're Expecting is one of the more emotionally satisfying movies I've seen in awhile. I bawled. I laughed out loud. And I did it again and again, back and forth, on a roller coaster of a ride. I'm not sure how this movie would affect people who haven't had kids or aren't mothers. I can't imagine it would be the same. Part of my reaction to the movie came from identifying with it in so many ways. I've suffered the miscarriages. I've waited years to get pregnant. I've had the embarrassing pregnant moments. And now I have the kids that make it all worth it.

To say this movie is based on the book What to Expect When You're Expecting is misleading. I think the book inspired a completely original idea for a movie, and the only thing the two really have in common is the title. One is a self-help book. The other is a handful of made-up stories about a variety of people encountering various pregnancy ups and downs. If there's any overlap there, it's only in the visual representation of some of the pregnancy scenarios you might encounter and the emotions that go with them.

This movie is a bit like another movie I recently reviewed, New Year's Eve, in that it's full of star actors, each with his or her own storyline. However, I think What to Expect When You're Expecting interweaves the stories better than New Year's Eve does. Each storyline also gets more time or, at least, involves the viewer more emotionally, so that the movie feels fuller and more complete.

Cameron Diaz, Matthew Morrison, Jennifer Lopez, Dennis Quaid, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Rock star. But those are just the actors I know best. There are five couples featured in this film, and all the performances are funny or heartfelt, including one by Elizabeth Banks just about every woman who's ever been pregnant probably identifies with.

Had I recently had a miscarriage and were I still waiting to get pregnant again, this movie might have been too much to handle. But having the distance I do now from the heartache, with successful pregnancies between, this movie was about perfect for me.

Sure, it's sometimes irreverent and at certain moments almost indecent. You can't have a discussion about the whole of pregnancy without at least alluding to the sex. But when you are trying to get pregnant, sex becomes more of a clinical thing. Therefore, the sexual aspect of this movie doesn't bother me as much as it does in most other movies. In fact, it offers room to discuss what it might mean to have sex outside of marriage. I was so happy to see the men in this movie stepping up and being willing to take responsibility with the women they impregnated outside of wedlock. Even though the movie reflects some of our society's moral degradation, it also shows some of the consequences of our actions. And though this movie might be TMI for some people, it's actually quite tasteful and not nearly as graphic as it could be. It's rated PG-13 for some sexuality, language, and mature thematic material. Sex is obviously implied, but not much is shown.

Speaking of too much information, I'm the type of person who can't stand to read all those books you're supposed to read before having kids. I let my husband do that, as he desired, and he passed along any critical information. I'm more of a tell-me-what-I-absolutely-have-to-know type of girl, and I'll figure out the rest. So, I appreciate the movie's nod to people like me when one of the characters is presented with a wall of information about pregnancy, and her partner says he'd rather not know what could go wrong. That is exactly what the book What to Expect When You're Expecting is all about: things that could go wrong! It was only a moment in the movie, but they hit it on the nail for me.

As I said before, I really don't know if this movie is for everyone. It might be one of those things where you have to have been there to get all of it. On the other hand, a couple who doesn't have kids yet told me recently that they thought it was hilarious, and there are certainly moments for everyone interspersed as a sort of comic relief among the more serious content. Overall, there's more comedy than tragedy, more to laugh about than cry about. But the balance of both is beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Four stars.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Spindlers

I must confess, I picked up middle-grade novel The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, more because of the author than interest in the content. That's funny, too, because I didn't love her young adult novel Delirium as much as I do most other dystopian novels. I guess I figured I'd give her another try. In fact, I have another older middle-school novel of hers that's been waiting awhile on my shelf. Maybe it's time to give that one a shot, too.

The Spindlers starts out slow...and a little kiddy, to be honest. I felt like I was reading elementary school fiction, and that's the age group I would recommend this to, having finished it. But it picks up toward the middle and is downright compelling as it nears the end.

Liza is a normal girl who wakes up one day to discover that her brother's soul is missing. He's still there, pretending to be himself, but Liza knows the difference. Her babysitter (and here I'm thinking, really? How can I take this adventure seriously if it's put into the realm of the babysitter's ghost stories?) has told her of the Spindlers, spider-like creatures who rule the Underworld and steal souls. Liza knows they have Patrick, and with the grownups calling her a storyteller and fibber, it's up to her to go down and get him back. But the Spindlers aren't the only danger that awaits her.

Yeah, I wasn't too fond of the whole babysitter-tells-stories-that-end-up-being-true idea. It makes you wonder from the start if any of the adventure is real or if it's all just in Liza's head or dreams. Perhaps the author realized this because she makes a point of proving to the reader (and to Liza, actually) that it's all real. But if you really wanted to, you could say it all happened in Liza's head, and it would still fit the book. I don't think that's what the author meant to imply at all, but it could easily be read that way.

That certainly contributed to my dislike of the beginning of this book. It was slow, too, in getting to any real danger. Liza meets some vaguely interesting creatures at the start of her adventure in the Underworld, but I kept hoping for more. And finally, the book gave me more. The Spindlers are the ultimate dangerous goal, but Liza's journey there holds its own dangers and surprises.

I'm not sure how old Liza is, but she seems young, maybe only slightly older than Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The book is targeted toward grades three through seven, but I would recommend it to the younger side of that spectrum. From what I've observed, kids who read usually read above their age level.

I was pleased to see that as in The Chronicles of Narnia, there is real danger (as long as it's not all a dream) for Liza in the Underworld. It's good to expose kids to a healthy amount of danger in books. Notice, I say "healthy," and by that I mean a parent still needs to monitor a child's reading experience. But I would say The Spindlers is a pretty safe bet for most kids.

Three stars for turning out to be an imaginative adventure worth reading.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

All's Faire in Love on DVD

I had never heard of the 2009 indie movie called All's Faire in Love, but it must have come out on DVD only this year because it's still in the new releases section of the rental store. I happened to see the cover and thought, "It takes place at a Renaissance Faire, and it's a romantic comedy. I like Renaissance Faires (though I've been to only one). That just might be cool." I wasn't expecting much, and I knew it couldn't be much worse than some of the B-movies I've picked up. Perhaps it was because I wasn't expecting a lot that I enjoyed this movie. It certainly surprised me in some great ways.

The starting point of the movie is this: in order to pass a class he's not taking seriously and continue to play football, college football star Will must spend the summer working at a Renaissance Faire, per his professor's orders. Kate, fresh out of business school, really wants to be an actress, and instead of getting a big job with a corporation, she "runs away" to the Renaissance Faire to join a friend who works there. Will and Kate are newbies, so both get the lowliest jobs of fetch-boy and fetch-girl. I couldn't care less about their background stories. The fun begins when they get to the faire and have to deal with their eccentric coworkers, who perhaps take their roles a little too seriously.

This movie is so quirky, and I really had fun watching it. Sure, it's cheesy at times, particularly the music. The music is so very not original. They try to use a Christian song as a romantic song, and I just had to laugh. Of course, Christians have done the opposite. (Have you ever heard The Lion King lyrics sung as if they were about God? "He lives in you. He lives in me...")

I think this movie could very well have been too cheesy for me if not for the right actors. Christina Ricci and Owen Benjamin star as Kate and Will and, forgive me for gushing a little, they are so cute together. Though Ricci's name is vaguely familiar to me, I really don't know these actors from Adam, so I had no preconceptions. I took their acting at face value, and for these roles, they work beautifully. Their co-actors are fun to watch as well in all their loveable or ridiculous parts.

Again, I wasn't expecting much, so when the football player suddenly revealed what a superb piano player he was, I didn't shout "foul." I just took it in stride as part of this silly but absolutely fun and funny movie.

It isn't even as dirty as it could have been. When I visited a Renaissance Faire, I was introduced to how bawdy it can be. Innuendo and cleavage everywhere. This movie doesn't omit that, but it also doesn't go too over-the-top. (A curse on someone's balls and a chastity belt do come into play, however.) It's rated PG-13.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all for me was that I almost immediately recognized the location of the set. Yes, indeed, of all the Renaissance Faires to choose from, the one they chose for their set was the one I've been to in Michigan. Icing on the cake.

Three stars for a fun romp. If you've ever enjoyed a Renaissance Faire, this will take you back, costumes, turkey legs, and all.