Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gravity on DVD

When you don't get to watch a lot of movies, it can take awhile to get to the more serious ones. Of course, 2013's Gravity won quite a few Oscars, including Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, so I knew it was a quality film (which is not quite the same as a good movie). Additionally, I'd heard good things about it from people I knew, so I thought it would be interesting, too. When given the chance, I confess that for awhile I chose more lighthearted things to watch over this one, but I decided it was finally time to see what the fuss was all about.

Deserved fuss, by the way. This is definitely an impressive film. Tight and short (91 min.) and highly focused with just enough of an emotional center to make you invest in Sandra Bullock's character (she got a Best Actress nomination), played opposite George Clooney (Fortunately with no nakedness involved this time! Anybody seen Solaris? Don't. We have a long-standing joke about this in our family.). The cinematography is just brilliant, but I was deep enough into the movie to not pay it too much attention. With every shot, the director makes you begin to feel the enormity and terror of being lost and alone in space. My husband is right that this movie would have been awesome to see in the theater or, better yet, in IMAX.

There are a lot of noteworthy aspects one could talk about in Gravity, but one of the things I really thought made it superb was its simplicity. It isn't a complicated film like Inception (which was great, in its own way). Instead, everything but the basics is stripped away. A mission in space goes awry, and the goal becomes straightforward: make it back home. I guess that was the goal in 1995's Apollo 13, too, but this is more pared down. There are no flashbacks or scenes of other people on Earth. It's all about right now and the reaction to what's happening and the fight (or not) to live. Even the theme is very simple. The tagline is: "Don't let go." And that's exactly what it's about. Physically, hang on for your life. Emotionally, decide what's worth hanging onto, even if, ironically, that means you do let go.

Despite the movie's simplicity, or perhaps because of it, this sci-fi thriller is intense. It's rated PG-13, which I find appropriate. There is an instance where the F-word is spoken, and it's a circumstance one can forgive. There's also a scene of a guy with a hole through his face. Mostly, it's rated for scenes of high-stakes danger, and that's what keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Wish I'd seen it in the theater, but even on my small computer screen, its gravity pulled me right in. Four out of five stars.

Friday, July 18, 2014


If you've heard of the name Brandon Sanderson, you've probably heard he was the writer of the last few books of the late Robert Jordan's 14-book Wheel of Time series. My husband grew up on that series, the ending of which was just published a year and a half ago, so it was from him that I heard about this author. When I saw an advanced reader's copy of Steelheart, a young adult science fiction book by Sanderson, I picked it up both for the name on the cover and for the premise about superhumans crushing the rest of humanity with their powers and about a group of rebels determined to take them out one by one. Coincidentally, my advanced reader's copy has a praising quotation from the latest author I've enjoyed, James Dashner. And when my husband read the book first and thought I would really like it, that sealed the deal.

Happily, I was not disappointed. Sanderson knows how to write characters, and he knows how to write action, both a must for a story like this one. David, the book's narrator and central character, is an awkward and single-minded but endearing character. His eventual companions all have quirks of their own so that even when the action lags the entertainment does not. If there's any character I liked less than the others, it's the girl, probably because she's written from a male perspective and we don't get to see into her head.

Sanderson is good with the big picture, with what the world would look like with all these evil supervillains, or Epics, controlling it. And he's good with the details: the powers and weaknesses of each Epic, the idiosyncrasies of each character (like David's bad metaphors or Cody's wild Scottish tales), the logistics of a small fight scene or a big battle. It's a pretty large book but actually rather short compared to what Sanderson normally writes. I read it fairly quickly, despite the size.

The set-up for the book is this: Epics are powerful and evil, but they have weaknesses. David is the only person alive who has witnessed Steelheart's weakness, on the day David's father was killed in front of his eight-year-old self. Over the last ten years, Steelheart has ruled as the master of Newcago, where he turned everything to steel and enlisted the help of another Epic to make it always night. Steelheart appears invulnerable, but David believes all the clues are locked away somewhere in his mind, and if he can find and join the Reckoners, a group of rebels who are the only ones defying the Epics, he will attempt to take out the greatest Epic of all.

Sanderson delves into themes of heroism and revenge without coming across as preachy. With just a dash of romance but a lot of heart, this story is more than teenage boy escapism. It's shallowly fun where it needs to be but deep enough not to feel cheap. It's a story that should have appeal for both genders and all ages.

Admittedly, I don't read a lot of books like Sanderson's. For all I know, there's a lot of other similarly good stuff out there. I've read pieces of The Wheel of Time but have been reluctant to dive into that due to the sheer volume of the thing and the world-building. I prefer quicker stories. But this young adult story ended up being just right in length and detail, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy when it comes out. There is also a short novella between the events of Steelheart and Firefight (expected publication in early 2015) called Mitosis, which I enjoyed.

Four out of five stars for Steelheart.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Maleficent in Theaters Now (but barely!)

I almost don't know what to say about Maleficent (starring a fabulous Angelina Jolie) except, "Go watch it." To reveal anything about the plot would be spoiling, and I'm impressed at how well the trailers hid the details of the story. If you enjoy fairy tales, especially retold fairy tales, don't miss this one.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? Is my praise too high? Perhaps. I don't think everyone will love this movie. If you like realism and cynicism (traits that define many movies today, particularly Oscar winners), the catharsis of tragedy, and Grimm-style fairy tales where not everything works out so well for the heroes, you might not appreciate this retelling. You might think it too neat, too perfect, too clean, too upbeat. Sure, it's not overly complicated. It's simply a beautiful fairy tale in a lush setting with fun, fantastical characters and the age-old conflict of good versus evil. It's traditional, but in its reimagined form, it's surprising--in the best sort of way.

You've probably seen the trailers, and if you are at all familiar with Disney fairy tales, you know the character of Maleficent well. She's the villain of Sleeping Beauty's tale. She curses the baby and later appears as a dragon before being vanquished. She's quite utterly evil, not an ounce of heart in her. That's the old tale. This one delves a bit more into Maleficent's backstory. What might possibly give rise to such evil in a person?

While certain people I know ( know who you are) are rather fascinated with Maleficent as a character, I was more uncertain about the movie. I saw the trailers and was interested enough. I'm into complicated characters, and the TV show Once Upon a Time has done a great job of creating some really interesting villains who aren't all bad to the core, characters who start out with some good in them and who one hopes by the end might be redeemed, not undone. That's one direction I thought this movie could go, and I was interested in seeing that, though unsure of what the outcome might be. As for where it actually went, I will not say.

Honestly, when I saw the trailers and then heard what the movie was rated (only PG), I was flabbergasted. Maleficent is a scary villain, and I couldn't believe anyone in this day and age wouldn't take advantage of that fact to create some really scary special effects. Having seen it, I'm still surprised at the rating, but at the same time, I understand it. With our rating system, what do you rate a movie that doesn't have sex or language and isn't even all that violent? There were certainly a few scary parts (though not like you'd expect), bits of thematic darkness and a couple CGI-enhanced battles. But compared to what it could have been, I suppose it was rather tame. I wouldn't take my four-year-old to it (though he'd probably love it more than I'd want him to), but a ten-year-old? Eight-year-old? I guess it depends on the kid.

I wish I could say more about the story (and about its themes) because there's so much there to talk about. But I want you to be as surprised as I was. I have to say one thing, and it's almost SPOILING to do so. You've been warned. Just this: it's not what you're expecting. Even in this review, I've tried to give nothing away but what you already know, perhaps even mislead you once or twice. But if you are wary about going to a movie starring a villain, there's less need for caution than you think. I loved it, and I don't understand the fascination with Maleficent. (Sorry, You Know Who!) I'm curious to know what the villain's fans think of this movie. They might have a different reaction than I do, but I'm betting that if they love the character of Maleficent (weirdos!), they love good old fairy tales and will love this one, whatever their expectations are.

I barely saw this in the theater but am glad that I did. There was an epic quality to it that the big screen enhanced. If you have a chance, see it in theaters before it's gone. Otherwise, be sure to look it up on DVD. It makes more sense than Snow White and the Huntsman, is as fun as Jack the Giant Slayer (Oooooh, I've turned you off, haven't I? People hated that one, for some reason!), and will likely go on my shelf next to Ever After.