Friday, March 22, 2013

Quick Takes on Five Recent Theater and DVD Releases

Oz the Great and Powerful (in theaters this month): I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed Jack the Giant Slayer, which was unfortunately released the week prior to Oz and lacked the same historical and classical background. I liked Jack for its straightforwardness. Oz is a bit too convoluted and busy and has very surface character development. The visuals, however, are beautiful. Three stars.

Wreck-It Ralph (animated feature on DVD this month): I watched this with my husband who, being familiar with similar old-school games, was quite a bit more taken with it than I was. It's pretty clever, but only a certain audience can truly appreciate it. I was, however, invested in the conflict, which centers on the main character's identity struggles. Three stars.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (rated PG-13, adapted from a novel, on DVD February 2013): Though the movie has some heavy thematic material and characters with loose morals, it surprised and impressed me (I have not read the book, so I can't compare.). The quality acting (by Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller, among others) is poignant and soulful, coaxing the viewer deep into a twisted story of pain and friendship. I was happy that the story didn't end on a completely depressing note, and while I wouldn't recommend this to just anyone, I'm glad to have seen it. Three stars.

The Master (rated R, on DVD February 2013): Skip it. This story, which is led by a handful of well-known and mostly respected actors and takes place in a cult shortly after World War II, is pointless and vile, containing an emphasis on sexual addiction and prolonged scenes of full female frontal nudity. I thought the cult aspect of it would be intriguing, and it was. But the immorality outweighed everything else for me. One star.

Anna Karenina (rated R, on DVD February 2013): I have not read the Russian Tolstoy novel, but my husband, who has and who watched this with me, was able to clarify any details I didn't get. It's a rather depressing story about adultery and its sad effects on the main character. The redeeming value of the movie is the genius of its filming, as though it takes place on an elaborate stage, and the transitions between scenes, which are fluid with the ever-evolving set. The style takes a bit to get into at first but leaves the viewer somewhat spellbound and awestruck. Also, hurray for Levin and the simple life. Three stars.

(Note: The three-star rating spans such a wide range of movies for me. Though I've rated most of these three stars and cannot easily rank them due to the huge difference in genre and target audience, I can categorize them according to morals, widespread appeal, and pure artistic beauty. Anna and Perks have troublesome morality issues and sex scenes, but surprisingly nothing is too graphic, even in Anna. Both of those are for specialized, mature audiences. Oz and Wreck-It have a much larger audience appeal and are family-friendly, but in my opinion, they are less artistic.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Forgotten Garden

It's rare that I step away from my fast-paced, short-but-sweet young adult novels to read a lengthy piece of regular fiction, particularly one that spans several generations and jumps between character stories. But occasionally, I find myself wanting a delightfully long read that's not over in two days, and since my sister-in-law had recommended The Forgotten Garden to me several times (shocked each time she asked me if I'd read it that I had not), I picked this one, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

But the young woman who discovers on her 21st birthday that she is not the person she always thought she was, whose life is turned upside down in an instant, and whose granddaughter inherits her unsolved mystery captured my full attention. The story spans a century, from the early 1900s to 2005, and two continents, taking place in Australia and England. The characters include Nell, the woman left on a ship by herself when she was only three or four years old; Cassandra, Nell's granddaughter with her own life trauma and baggage; Eliza, the mysterious and captivating Authoress; and a wealthy, selfish, merciless English family.

Normally, descriptive passages slow me down, but author Kate Morton knows just how to hook her readers along, leaving bread crumbs here and there, enticing them to read just a little further to solve just a little more of the mystery. There's a bit of a haunting, magical feel to the story, heightened no doubt by Eliza's fairytales, a few of which are included in their entirety. If anything slowed my reading of this book more than normal, it was probably the character jumping. One chapter might be about Cassandra in 2005. Then we're back to Eliza in 2000. Then we're with Nell in 1975. Some of those points provided too easy of a break at which to put the book down for awhile. However, I was never tempted to leave the story too long. Quite the opposite. I found myself stealing moments during the day to open those 500-plus pages, even when my son was competing for my attention! The last 200, or so, pages were especially difficult to put down. By then, I was starting to piece things together and making guesses about the ending (some of which were right and some of which weren't quite). I put a key piece of the puzzle together approximately 150 pages before the end, but even then, there were discoveries to make and moments to question what I thought I knew.

The Forgotten Garden is a book to delve into at the expense of all else. Kate Morton is a storyteller with a spellbinding gift. This is certainly some of the best adult fiction out there. Five stars.


Since I have already reviewed Cinder, the first book in this series, here, I am not going to say too much about Marissa Meyer's sequel, Scarlet. If you like fairytales and science fiction, these books are a great mixture. Scarlet (Can you guess which fairytale this story is influenced by?) continues the story told in Cinder but adds another set of main characters on their own journey.

Scarlet is sure her grandmother has been kidnapped, but no one believes her. So, when a handsome but dangerous street fighter named Wolf has some clues as to where her grandmother might be, Scarlet has no choice but to follow his lead...even if she doesn't trust him.

I pre-ordered this book (Is there anything so wonderful as receiving a package of goodies in the mail?), and I was thoroughly hooked by the story and sad to have it end. Nonetheless, The Lunar Chronicles aren't over yet. This is one of my top recommended, current, young adult series!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer in Theaters Now

Jack the Giant Slayer was my second choice to see in theaters this month, but when you have kids, sometimes you just have to go with the time that works. Oz the Great and Powerful comes out next weekend, and Jack was in town now. So, we went to see Jack. My expectations were set rather low. By now, I should know better than to trust any reviews from Entertainment Weekly Magazine. As much as I enjoy getting my copy in the mail every Friday, I rarely agree with their opinions on movies. Jack got a C+ from them, and though to a certain extent I can see why they thought it was only an average movie, I thought there were aspects of it that really made it stand out from the typical fairytale fare we're often served.

Overall, I really liked Jack the Giant Slayer. I didn't see it in 3D, which is probably an adventure all by itself, but it didn't need the effects to be entertaining. Jack has danger, wild adventure, a bit of romance, and just the right touch of humor, all of these characteristics melding together into a lighthearted but still epic tale of heroism. It doesn't try to be funny just to be funny, but it doesn't take itself too seriously either. It's fun.

The plot itself is very straightforward, but that's not to say it's entirely predictable. The princess gets snatched. The farm boy goes to save her. All kinds of adventure follow. But the conflict isn't drawn out as many other similar movies do. Nothing takes too long to resolve. No conflict lasts throughout the movie. Bad guys die off like flies. But all this keeps the movie moving and changing, and the viewer doesn't get bored. The stereotypical mistrust you often have between a story's good characters, all the misunderstanding that slows the plot down, just isn't there. Although that kind of stuff can make good conflict sometimes, it's so overdone in movies, especially romances, that you feel like yelling at the central characters to get over themselves and see what the audience saw long ago. But Jack moves things right along in a way that's refreshing. Sure, you don't get a lot of in-depth character development, but that's not why you go to see a movie like Jack.

And you don't need a lot of character development when you have fantastic entertaining characters to begin with, as Jack does. Though, admittedly, they are static and somewhat stereotypical, they are also individualized. Even the minor characters stand out, quirky and fun, and you care or at least have an opinion ("he deserved to lose his head") about nearly all of them. I really enjoyed seeing a relatively new face in Jack himself, played adorably by Nicholas Hoult. And Ian McShane and Ewan McGregor give fun, heartfelt, memorable performances as the king and the head guard in charge of the princess's safety. They have the best lines.

Jack is rated PG-13. A fair amount of people die, some rather gruesomely eaten by giants, but nothing is very graphic. There are probably some middle-schoolers who would absolutely love it, but I, personally, wouldn't take younger kids.

(Minor SPOILER alert!) Jack certainly has its over-the-top moments (like falling with a giant beanstalk and landing safely, or the princess coming out of her tent with perfect curls literally ten seconds after looking like she'd just ridden aforementioned falling beanstalk a mile to the ground), but the moments fit in fairytale land without making the movie completely implausible for those of us who like things a little more real. It's a solid fairytale movie without the singing or overabundance of cheap jokes that many lighter, bubblier fairytale movies have. Comparing it to other fairytales adapted for the screen, it's not nearly as serious as Snow White and the Huntsman, but it's not as ridiculous as Ella Enchanted (which I enjoyed anyway, back in the day) or Mirror, Mirror. There's a happy middle that evokes childhood memories of listening sleepily to your parents reading grand adventures. Incidentally, but perhaps not accidentally, that's exactly how Jack the Giant Slayer begins, with children listening to tall tales. And if you go see Jack, just sit back, become a kid again, and enjoy the telling.