Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looper in Theaters Now

I was so excited to see this movie that I even let my husband fork out the extra cash to see it in a nice theater in a big city on my birthday getaway. But what a disappointment!

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in a science fiction flick about time travel and murderers-for-hire. I guess I missed the part about them being hired guns and was more excited about the time travel aspect and the actors. My mistake.

Joe is one of these Loopers. He takes care of criminals who are sent to him from the future, where time traveling is illegal. Killing people in the past leaves no trail to follow. When a Looper has served enough time, he is sent his own future self to dispose of, along with enough gold to set him up for the next (and last) 30 years of his life. Loopers close the "loop" by killing their future selves and then get to live in peace until it's time to be on the other end of that gun. Neat and clean (the process, that is; not the movie).

The movie is rated R. I think it should be rated higher, like NC-17 or something (I don't even know what the next level is). Looper is brutally violent, and there is far too much (any is too much) upper female nudity, which I wasn't expecting at all. And when children are murdered for the "greater good," that crosses the line for me in the violence department.

Besides the time travel thing, there is one other science fiction aspect, involving telekinesis. This barely affects the plot except where it has to do with the main bad guy. Otherwise, it's poorly integrated and feels like a superfluous plot device to make the bad guy simultaneously more evil and cool.

After such a depressing story, it's rather amazing that the movie pulls off some redemptive value. Looper is not worth paying the money to see, but if you did, by accident, you won't leave in utter despair. In the end, love wins, and not just any love...a mother's love. That's pretty powerful. It's just buried by a load of images that are powerfully harmful.

Sure, Willis and Gordon-Levitt do a great job acting like the younger and older versions of the same person. Emily Blunt also has a great role as a protective, tortured single mom. The acting is fine. Even the story could have been acceptable with little improvements here and there. There's just no moral center to it.

I heard this movie compared to Inception as far as its capability to blow your mind. In no way does it stand a chance against Inception. The time travel leaves questions that are mind-blowing, certainly, but that's because they just don't make sense. Time travel always seems to have a hole somewhere. Dr. Who has a name for this: it's timey-wimey. That's okay for Dr. Who. Dr. Who blows my mind with its goodness. What does Looper have going for it if not a tightly woven time travel history? Sex and gore, and those don't fly on this blog.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) on DVD

I was so hesitant to watch the Oscar-nominated and award-winning Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I'd heard mixed reviews about it and thought it might be trying too hard to push an agenda or too depressing. What the agenda might be I wasn't certain. That's what comes of only half listening to gossip and not researching yourself.

When the movie finally came through on my netflix, I still didn't watch it right away. But I finally had time and the inclination, and watching it was certainly worth it, if emotionally exhausting.

Based on the novel by Jonathan S. Foer but inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, the movie tells the fictional story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the Towers that morning. As the year following his father's death comes to a close, Oskar feels he is losing his dad for good. He hangs onto the vestiges of his father's time on earth, including six heartbreaking answering machine messages his father left once the attack started. When he finds a key among his father's possessions, he believes his dad left him a last scavenger hunt and message, and he embarks on a journey all over New York City to find the lock. Oskar, who suffers from something akin to Asperger's Disorder, discovers a city full of faces and people, some eager to help and some not, but each with his or her own story to tell. For the boy who's afraid of so many things, the journey is sometimes overwhelming, but Thomas Schell told his son to never stop looking, and so he doesn't. Caught in the young boy's circle of pain are his loving but somewhat lost mother, his caring and quirky grandmother, and his grandmother's mysterious renter, an old man without a voice and with past hurts of his own.

Thomas Horn is one of the best child actors I've seen since Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush). This is complex, heartfelt, amazing acting for a kid, even if he's older than he looks. He was approximately 14 when the movie was released in theaters. He stars in a film with Sandra Bullock (who plays his mother) and Tom Hanks (who plays his dad in flashbacks), but Thomas Horn is the one who shines. His acting partner for much of the movie, Max von Sydow (who plays the Renter), complements him perfectly. Together, they make both the laughter and the tears flow.

And, believe me, this is an emotional roller-coaster ride, weighted more heavily perhaps on the downward side than the up. As a mother myself, watching another mother feel like she's losing her son and must let him go to save him was tough. Sandra Bullock plays those emotions beautifully, and I felt like I was looking into a mirror as I cried along with her.

But the movie is not altogether depressing, and the ending, while sad enough, is also hopeful. I don't mind watching sad stories if they have satisfying endings. Mind you, I didn't say "perfect," and this one's ending isn't. But it met my needs for the story on a foundational level. Sometimes the more "perfect" movie endings don't ring true. I'd rather have the ring of truth and something hopeful at the end. Hope always exists, and that rings truer to me than everything working out beautifully.

The movie is morally sound, rated PG-13 for a bit of language but mostly for disturbing 9/11 images. People who lost loved ones in the Towers should be aware that this might not be for them. On the other hand, it could offer a sort of cathartic healing, too.

I give this movie three stars for superb acting with difficult material. I'm not in love with the story, but I was certainly affected and touched by it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer

You'd think a book with the title The Last Dragonslayer would be high fantasy or at least sport a fierce-looking dragon on the cover. Not this one. There are various covers for this book by British author Jasper Fforde, but my advance reader's copy has an old-school VW bug on the front, and that's about it. The image doesn't match the title, does it? But that title and that image together match the book perfectly.

The story takes place in some sort of modern-day other-Europe where kings rule and magicians are losing power and one last dragon remains. Jennifer Strange is a foundling, raised by nuns and then sent for a six-year term of servitude to a magician employment agency. It's actually a good job for a foundling, and Jennifer does it well, managing the affairs of the kingdom's last magicians, making sure they fill out the correct magic-usage forms and getting the weakening magicians minor jobs here and there, mainly magical housework and repairs.

But when magic mysteriously begins to increase and a prophecy predicts the death of the last dragon by noon on Sunday, Jennifer suddenly finds herself in the middle of a hectic week dealing with greedy rulers, conniving knights, temperamental magicians, and a new apprentice or two, not to mention her own evolving identity.

In case you haven't felt the vibe yet, this is a quirky book. Part modern urban fantasy, part something-I-haven't-put-my-finger-on-yet, this book is surely unlike anything in its genre on the market right now. It's targeted toward young adults, but it doesn't quite feel like a young adult book. In fact, Fforde has written other novels, but this is his debut young adult book. The heroine is a teenager, but the storytelling style and narration feel geared toward a different generation, or at least a different set of teens than your standard readers of Twilight and The Hunger Games. It's more cerebral, a tiny bit on the literary side, with tongue-in-cheek humor only the more nerdy teen here and there might get.

It's refreshing if you can get used to the style. For me, it was kind of slow-going at first. I enjoyed it, but I didn't feel compelled to read it in one go. The end goes a little faster. The beginning has a lot of set-up, maybe too much, I'm not sure.

The morals are good. There's no romance (again, not your typical young adult). The story is unique in a sort of "what if" way. And if you like it, it's a series, though I felt like the book ended more satisfactorily than many series books, and I don't feel like I'd have to read more. That might not be the best thing for the author, but I liked having a solid ending. Final verdict: three stars, but I'm keeping it on my shelf because there just isn't much else like it out there.

The Artist (2011) on DVD

Overall, I was not impressed with The Artist.

Unless you live under a rock (and, hey, I'm not knocking the coziness and safety of a nice, solid rock), you know that The Artist won this year's Best Picture Oscar. I finally got around to watching it on DVD, mostly, I confess, because my husband wanted to. I'm not really into silent films, but I've seen some, as well as other good early film classics, so I knew what to expect.

It is a decent tribute to the end of the silent film-making era, but not great. The acting is spot-on, a little like theater acting with exaggerated facial expressions and large body movements. Once I got into that, I enjoyed it and found it quite humorous, as it was meant to be.

I generally like new faces in movies, but in this case, I wish the movie had more known actors in it because it's entertaining to watch an actor you've seen in modern movies, such as John Goodman, attempt a more theatrical old-school acting style like this. But Goodman was the only familiar face for me.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) The movie's depiction of the transition from silent films to "talkies" is clever, but it isn't as well-done as I thought it could have been. Most of the movie is silent, but as the transition takes place, we get to hear a few sounds and, at the end, even words. I think the movie-makers should have run more with that. It was such a little touch it felt more like the movie stepped away from what it was trying to be rather than that it depicted a transition from silence to speech in films. I would have preferred to have all the sounds and speech at the end of the movie following the transition, but instead, the movie goes back to a silent film for part of that. It needed to be "all in" or leave out the sounds altogether, I think, but maybe that's just my preference for modern-day films surfacing.

More than that, however, what I didn't like about the movie was the story, unfortunately. It's about a romantic affair and an arrogant actor who doesn't learn a thing by the end, even after losing nearly everything. Maybe affairs were a big part of the times, I don't know, but for me, morality sometimes makes or breaks a story. With no clear indication that the affair was a reflection of culture at that time, this movie's morality broke it for me. Nothing bad is shown, of course. It's an emotional affair rather than a sexual one. (SPOILERS END)

The MPAA rates the movie PG-13 for, and I quote, "a disturbing image and a crude gesture," which just makes me laugh. There's nothing your little ones can't see. It's more that anyone under 13 (or maybe 20), with the rare exception, just isn't going to "get it."

If you are not familiar with silent films, this could be a good introduction, simply because it's made today and not a century ago and the film-makers are aware of their modern viewers. But if you have no intention of ever watching a classic silent film, there's no reason to watch this modern one either.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rise of the Elgen (Michael Vey, Book 2)

Rise of the Elgen is the second book in Richard Paul Evans's young adult series about Michael Vey, a teenager with electric powers, so if you haven't read the first, don't start here. Reading this review might spoil the first book, and if you read this book first, you'll be playing catch-up for a long time. Start with The Prisoner of Cell 25, which I've reviewed for you here. If you like superheroes and science fiction, you'll like this series.

Again, if you haven't read the first book, there will be some major SPOILERS ahead. Michael Vey and his Electroclan, other kids with assorted electric powers, are on the run. After shutting down the facility he'd been a prisoner at and recruiting some of the formerly-evil electric teens to his cause, there isn't a place on the globe that Michael can run to where Dr. Hatch won't hunt him down. But Michael isn't planning on running away. He plans on running toward the danger so that he can free his mother from Hatch's cruel hand. The rest of the electric teens, and a few friends who aren't, are deeply loyal to Michael, so he's not alone. His best friend is a brainiac. His girlfriend can read minds. Two former school enemies and bullies owe him their lives, so even though they're not electric, they're part of the group, putting all that aggression to good use now. Then there's Zeus, who shoots electric bolts; McKenna, who heats things up; Abigail, who can ease pain with a touch; and Ian, who's blind but can see living things better than anyone. And as time passes, Michael's own powers of electrocution become stronger. The Electroclan is a force to be reckoned with. But so is Hatch. He still has some very powerful electric teens on his side, and the methods he'll use to keep his people in check provide him with a very loyal and dangerous group of soldiers of his own: the Elgen. This second book of the series takes the action into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru.

You can get bogged down in names and details in this series, but at the same time, part is that contributes to why it's so good. Evans puts all his characters to use. None of them are just along for the ride or a pretty face (okay, except maybe Wade, poor secondary character). Each electric power comes in handy. Each character contributes, both to the physical plot and to the emotional development of the book.

There's also something very good about this series and Michael Vey, in particular. Michael wants to do the right thing. He has all this responsibility on his shoulders, but the power never goes to his head. The good characters are clearly good, and the bad characters are clearly whatever they are: truly evil or conflicted or coerced. There's in-fighting in Michael's group, but they learn to overcome it and even fight for each other, instead. It's a series about teens who don't have it all together but who do have these amazing powers they are willing to use for good, even if it terrifies them to confront evil.

That doesn't mean the book's remotely realistic, but when are superhero stories ever? Yeah, things are a little over-the-top. There are lots of helpful coincidences (a fact the book doesn't deny) and lots of impossible odds. Peru is definitely not as dangerous as Evans makes it out to be. I grew up in the Amazon rainforests; I should know.

Despite the goodness of the Good vs. Evil being really good (or maybe to balance it), the evil is pretty awful at times: torture, violence, and death. The good guys try not to kill in cold blood, but there are casualties as they defend themselves. The bad guys don't have any such scruples, of course, and I'd be disappointed in the book if it pulled punches like that. But the level of violence, particularly in the torture, may not be for everyone.

That said, however, Rise of the Elgen is a good addition to Evans's series and a book that older teens and adults alike should enjoy. Four stars.