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Rio

Given that Sky Blue Sky Studios was the same group that brought us Ice Age and Robots, I really wasn't expecting much from Rio. After all, we live in an age where Pixar has repeatedly shown us that not just animated movies but family movies can have full, rounded characters with complex relationships in stories with real emotional depth. In comparison, Blue Sky's movies have typically just tried to cash in on celebrity voices and visual gags. And in a lot of ways, Rio follows that same formula. Still, I have to admit that it did a better job than any previous Blue Sky offerings, and while that's not exactly high praise, I can say that I enjoyed the movie well enough.

There's not really a lot to the movie, plotwise. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue parrot who lives with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann) in Minnesota. It turns out that he's the last known male of his species, so a Brazilian biologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) brings Blu and Linda down to Rio de Janeiro to try to pair Blue with a female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). But Blu and Jewel wind up getting stolen by bird smugglers and wacky hijinks ensue as the parrots try to escape.

I think the main problem I had with this movie was Jesse Eisenberg's voice acting. Not that he did a particularly bad job, and in a lot of respects that casting choice makes sense. Blu is, after all, shy, awkward, and young. If you want a voice that sums that up quickly you're pretty much down to Eisenberg or Michael Cera. The problem is that both of those actors have such distinctive voices that hearing them immediately evokes their images, so having Eisenberg voice a cartoon bird kept jarring me out of the movie.

On the other hand, despite the fact that the jokes were mostly pretty facile, they were executed well enough by the various actors that I found myself laughing out loud several times. Plus, the movie was quite pretty to look at--it's really amazing how far computer imagery has come in such a short amount of time.

It's pretty unlikely that Rio will be winning any awards, but if all you need is a movie you can take your kids to without too much pain, you could definitely do worse.


Viewed: 5/8/2011 | Released: 4/15/2011 | Score: B-

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Six Months, Six Words

You know, I keep meaning to write new reviews, but with one thing or another, it keeps falling by the wayside. Seems like I set out almost every day to catch up on my reviews, but by the time I've got the dishes done and the laundry put away and my son bathed and I've finished the day's work for my new photography business, all I want to do is collapse on the couch and watch re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the plus side, that means I've been ending a lot of evenings lately doing what I want--Juliette and I started season five of Buffy this week--but, of course, it means I've slipped a lot on some of my other responsibilities.

But you didn't come here to hear me whine. You came here for book reviews. So, in an effort to finally get back on track, I decided to do one huge omnibus review of everything I've read in the past six months. The twist? Each review gets six words.

The Hunger Games Trilogy: If you haven't already, read it.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Conspiracy theories make my head hurt.

Leviathan Wakes: The best new sci-fi in years.

Treason's Shore: A weaker series than I remembered.

His Majesty's Dragon: Like Hornblower, but with dragons. Fun.

Lolita: Beautiful prose, utterly uncomfortable reading experience.

And there we are. Hopefully it won't be another six months before I can get my act together. ;)


The Hunger Games

Started: 12/7/2010 | Finished: 12/8/2010

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Catching Fire

Started: 1/24/2011 | Finished: 1/25/2011

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Mockingjay

Started: 1/26/2011 | Finished: 1/26/2011

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The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Started: 1/4/2011 | Finished: 1/21/2011

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Leviathan Wakes

Started: 1/31/2011 | Finished: 2/8/2011

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Treason's Shore

Started: 3/11/2011 | Finished: 3/16/2011

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His Majesty's Dragon

Started: 3/17/2011 | Finished: 3/19/2011

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Lolita

Started: 3/21/2011 | Finished: 4/6/2011

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Gnomeo & Juliet

2010 was a pretty good year for animated movies. Of course, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon were fantastic, and I wrote before about liking Tangled quite a bit. Heck, even the latest Shrek offering was decent. And then Jason's interest in movies has been growing steadily, and we had a bunch of theater gift cards left over from Christmas, so we decided to take a chance on Gnomeo & Juliet.

Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnomish take on Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed lovers failed to measure up to the high bar set by last year's animated hits.

I had my suspicions going in, of course. I mean, a tragedy ending in a double suicide doesn't seem like the most fertile ground for a family cartoon, does it? But then, animation studios have been doing a great job with creating more honest, engaging children's fare lately, well-written stories with fully realized characters. Maybe this one would follow that same path, I thought. And then I heard Kenneth Turan's review on NPR's Morning Edition, in which he called it "playful, inventive, and endearing," and "the pleasantest surprise of the season." With that kind of praise, I let myself be talked into overcoming my initial reservations.

Having seen it for myself, I have to wonder whether Mr. Turan and I actually saw the same movie. The writing was completely formulaic and dull, replete with your wise-cracking sidekicks and pop music montages. The performances were forgettable. The humor was tired, and there was no real sense of emotional engagement. In short, there really wasn't anything to lift this above the level of, say, Shark Tale or one of the middle Shrek movies.

Leaving the theater afterwards, I had this image of a bunch of clueless studio execs sitting around saying things like, "Our focus studies showed that parents appreciate pop culture references," and "You know what would be hilarious? Let's give this one character a bunch of malapropisms for no reason. And then he'll be voiced by Michael Caine!"

Now, look, I don't have anything against these ideas, per se, but if you must put in pop culture references, could you at least put in some fresh ones? There must be hundreds of movies at this point that have used the Matrix bullet-time gimmick or the American Beauty rose petals or thrown in an "I wish I could quit you" for no reason. Maybe that was OK the first year after those movies came out, but it's just not topical anymore. Nobody cares anymore.

The really tragic thing about this movie is that there was actually some evidence that somebody involved actually did know something about filmcraft, because there was one scene that had some genuine emotional content. (Tellingly, there was no dialogue at all in that part.) But even that didn't really work in the context of the film as a whole, being almost a throwaway scene that ended up just feeling incongruous with all the silliness in the rest of the movie.

Of course, there's always the chance I'm just being snobby. Most of the other families coming out of the theater with us talked about how good and cute it was. They seemed pretty happy on their ticket purchase. Maybe they really did like it; maybe they just liked having a chance to get out of the house with the kids. I don't know. But in an era where Pixar is repeatedly proving that you can make animated movies that are both entertaining and emotionally complex, I just can't recommend a movie like Gnomeo & Juliet.


Viewed: 2/19/2011 | Released: 2/11/2011 | Score: D+

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Elantris

By Brandon Sanderson

I probably wouldn't have picked up another Sanderson novel so soon after finishing the Mistborn trilogy, but a coworker loaned me this one thinking that it was the third book in that series so I had it on-hand. Still, it made for an interesting comparison, since Elantris was Sanderson's first published novel, and Mistborn followed soon after.

Elantris is the name of a huge, once powerful and beautiful city. For hundreds of years, the city was populated by a race of benevolent demigods, each of whom was at one time human but was transformed into an Elantrian through a mysterious process called the Shaod. But ten years prior to the beginning of the story, the Elantrians' magic failed, causing their city to crumble. More than that, though the Shaod still takes people, instead of becoming powerful, near-immortal magic wielders, they turn into shambling wrecks, unable to die or even heal--any wounds suffered by a new Elantrian remain painful forever.

The story opens with Raoden--a prince of Arelon, the country formerly ruled by Elantris--waking to discover that he has been taken by the Shaod, on the morning he is to be wed to Sarene, a princess from across the sea. Like all those transformed since the fall of Elantris, he is banished into the rotting city, and the rest of the world is told that he has died suddenly. Sarene is left to find her way in Arelon on her own, while Raoden discovers the depths to which life--if it can be called that--in Elantris has sunk in the past ten years. Into this scene comes a third character, Hrathen, a warrior-priest intent on subjugating Arelon for his dark masters, and Raoden and Sarene must work to discover the secret of Elantris' downfall before Hrathen achieves his goal.

All in all, the book was decent, but in comparison with Mistborn, it was easy to see that this was the earlier work. Like a lot of speculative fiction, Elantris is built around one central idea. In this case, it's the mystery of the Elantrians' downfall. The problem is, that idea was a little too central for my taste, leaving me feeling in the end that the book was just too long for what it was. Which is not to say that the book is boring--Sanderson does a fairly good job of keeping things going from scene to scene--it's just that much of what happens, especially in the first half, ends up feeling digressive by the end.

Still, I do have to give Sanderson credit for coming up with an interesting concept. The characters were fairly well-crafted, too, even if the world they inhabited felt a little simplistic to me. What worked the best for me was actually not so much the plot but rather the time spent with Raoden, exploring the ruins of Elantris. Both the descriptions of the city, itself, as well as the survival-of-the-fittest culture that arose there were quite evocative. (As a side note, it made me wonder how much influence was drawn from Mervyn Peake's Ghormengast novels--I haven't read those yet, but reading this made me bump them ahead in my queue a few places.)

I don't know if Elantris is quite worth the praise it's gotten from critics and readers, but it was nevertheless a pretty entertaining read. It's out in paperback at this point, so you should be able to pick it up fairly cheaply in your local bookstore.


Started: 12/9/2010 | Finished: 12/16/2010

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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

By Peter Carey

I wasn't sure, when I finished this novel, whether or not I liked it. Having had seven weeks to mull it over, I'm still not sure. That doesn't happen that often for me, but it appears to be where I am with The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

A big part of my ambivalence stems from my difficulty in figuring out just what the book is about. It is, as the title suggests, a personal story. Tristan Smith is born with grotesque deformities that isolate him for the rest of his life--he can barely speak, only walks with difficulty, vomits when upset, and is so hideous that most people can't stand to look at him. So, on one level, it is a character study of a deeply marginalized and alienated person--we see the roiling internal life of a central figure who is effectively cut off from the world around him.

But then, it's also clearly meant as a political allegory. Tristan is born and grows up in the country of Efica, a fictional island nation whose beginnings as a penal colony recall author Carey's native Australia, but whose language and culture rather bring to mind South Africa. (Or, at least, the loosely formed image of South Africa that I have.) Tristan's mother is an emigrant from Voorstand, another fictional country whose cultural hegemony and cloak-and-dagger espionage agents are an obvious reference to the United States--though Voorstand's Dutch-influenced dialect is also reminiscent of the Boers.

The interplay between Efica and Voorstand colors every aspect of the novel. Tristan's mother is the founder of an agitprop theater company, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in the company of that theater group as they work and tour and speak against Voorstandish influence in Efica. Tristan grows up both despising Voorstand and entranced by its flashy culture. (The lie is later put to that flashy impression when Tristan visits Voorstand and sees, instead, a landscape of inanity and social decay.) Seeing Tristan's world as we do, through his eyes, we're given a glimpse at the other side of first-world relations with the third world.

The political aspect might seem overbearing if it were completely earnest--and I'm not sure it's not overbearing anyway--but there's also a fair amount of satire. Of the world superpowers, of course--Voorstand's feared intelligence agencies are depicted as almost farcical, and the country's society is based on what amounts to a literal worship of Disney characters. Conversely, Efica--especially the artists surrounding Tristan and his mother--are portrayed with such self-importance that it's hard to imagine that Carey isn't making fun of them, as well.

On top of all of that, the form of the book leaves me wondering how much, if any, can even be trusted. The story is told in Tristan's own voice, complete with footnotes on fictional history and cultural explanations, presented as a memoir or confessional. Throughout the book, Tristan addresses the reader directly, imagining us to be Voorstandish citizens who see him as a terrorist, and imploring us to understand his perspective. It's reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's repeated asides to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Between that allusion and the fact that so much detail is included in scenes where Tristan was either not present or was too young to remember or understand, it seems at times that the reader is invited to wonder just how much is being made up or covered over to further some other agenda.

There's a lot going on in this book, and it's clearly a skillful work. But despite the fact that I can appreciate, even marvel at the craftsmanship, there was still something holding me back from really connecting with it. Maybe I'm simply too American or too bourgeois. I don't know. I'd love to get another take on it, though, so if any of you out there do read it, let me know what you thought.


Started: 11/23/2010 | Finished: 12/7/2010

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The Mistborn Trilogy

The problem with genre fiction is how, well, generic so much of it is. You know what I'm talking about. The SF/fantasy section at your typical bookstore is jam-packed with J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft and Stephenie Meyer rip-offs. (And, let's be fair, even Stephenie Meyer is kind of an Anne Rice rip-off.) Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with being derivative--not only is there plenty of entertainment to be found by adhering to genre tropes, but playing on and with those tropes can and has produced some very thoughtful work over the years.

Still, it's nice when an author comes along with a fresh take on an old genre. Daniel Abraham's magic poetry in his Long Price Quartet, for example, or Glen Cook's dark spin on epic fantasy conventions in his Black Company novels. I'm not quite sure I'd put Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn series on quite the same level as those two, but I do have to give him credit for coming up with a pretty novel system of magic for his books.

Instead of waving wands, chanting incantations, or carving mystic symbols, magic users in Sanderson's world draw power from various metals, which they ingest and then "burn." (He calls this system of magic "allomancy," aptly enough.) Different metals give different powers--pewter, for example, makes you strong, while zinc and brass allow you to manipulate emotions. Some people, called "Mistings," can only use one metal, while others can use all of them. These latter are known as "Mistborn," from which the series draws its name.

The series opens on Vin, a street girl who has begun to make a name for herself as a member of a small-time criminal organization. What no one knows--not even Vin, herself--is that her successes in her gang are because she is a natural Allomancer. She's soon discovered by Kelsier, a rebel who stands against the evil (and immortal) Lord Protector and the empire over which he rules.

The trilogy is structured much like a standard three-act story. In fact, the story arc reminded me a bit of Star Wars. In the first installment we're introduced to the major characters and shown the rules of the world; things end with a big triumph for the good guys. In the second episode we're given some big revelations and the characters are hit with a huge setback. The third and final episode finally answers all of the questions and resolves everything in one epic climax.

All in all, I'd say Sanderson delivered a thoroughly entertaining read. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted more from him. I often felt that the series was reaching really hard for "epic," but despite the fact that world-changing events keep happening, I still came away feeling that the story was kind of small.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that I've read some really good fantasy over the last few years. I mentioned Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet already, and the comparison there may be apt. Both series are notable for being built around a novel magic system, but Abraham's world was much more deeply imagined, leaving you with the sense of having visited a place both truly exotic but still familiar. Too, Abraham worked with bigger themes, or perhaps just realized them more skillfully--either way, his characters had much more emotional resonance with me.

Lest you think I'm being too harsh, I'd like to repeat that I certainly found Mistborn entertaining. It's just that I felt that the series aspired to more, and I found myself wishing it had gotten there. But it's worth pointing out that I read the entire trilogy--over 2,000 pages--in just two weeks, so there was clearly enough there to grab me and keep me interested.

 


Mistborn

Started: 11/3/2010 | Finished: 11/5/2010

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The Well of Ascension

Started: 11/6/2010 | Finished: 11/10/2010

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The Hero of Ages

Started: 11/12/2010 | Finished: 11/17/2010

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Tron: Legacy

In retrospect, I'm not really sure why I was so excited when I first heard that Disney was finally making a sequel to Tron. That is, I know why--the original movie had rocked my young world with its lightcycles and frisbee combat and glowing costumes, and the prospect of spending more time in that world blinded me to the question of what a sequel would actually bring that was of value. Well, what was the sequel worth?

At the opening of Tron: Legacy, the hero of the original film, Kevin Flynn, disappears on the verge of some major discovery. He leaves behind a young son, Sam, who grows into a troubled young man. Like his father, Sam eventually winds up getting transported into the world inside a computer and must find his way back out while also stopping the machinations of an evil program bent on world domination.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it's because the plot of the new film is essentially the same as the old one. But while that sounds like a big knock against Tron: Legacy, it's worth pointing out that the "stranger in a strange land" scenario is actually a fairly standard sci-fi plotline, aside from which, Tron has always been more about the visual spectacle than a gripping plot or complex characters.

And what about those visuals? You'd think that with 28 years of technological innovation in the film industry, this new film's effects would rock the socks off of it's 1982 counterpart. Well, they did. But the problem is that with those 28 years of innovation came 28 years to get used to visual effects. When Tron first came out, the effects were so amazing that they ran the risk of making people's heads explode; no one had ever seen anything like them before. Now, on the other hand, simply having cool action sequences, computer-generated graphics, and a weird aesthetic isn't enough to blow anyone's mind. We've simply seen too much cool stuff in the movies for this to really make an impact.

What, then, does this long-awaited sequel really bring to the table? Fan service. Miles and miles of fan service. The movie is jam-packed with references, both to the original film and to other classic science fiction. The problem with fan service, though, is that if you don't get the references, there's no payoff for you, and if you do get them, you focus on that instead of what's actually happening in the scene. For example, I snickered a bit at a line cribbed from War Games, and while that was kind of fun, it also completely undermined any dramatic tension the scene might otherwise have had.

At the end of the day, though, Tron: Legacy isn't a terrible film. Much of the plot and the fictional world are either derivative or nonsensical--all the pseudo-mystical technobabble was a little tiresome but not awful--but as a brainless but inoffensive action flick, it wasn't bad. In that way it actually has even more in common with its predecessor, which, if you go back and watch it today, really doesn't hold up all that well. Unfortunately, Tron: Legacy isn't really competing with Tron; rather, it's competing with our memories of that film, and that's a fight it just can't win, not even with two identity discs.


Viewed: 1/1/2011 | Released: 12/17/2010 | Score: C-

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How Do You Know

You might guess that this one was Juliette's pick, and that's more or less true, but I had actually been intrigued by it as well. I like Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, after all, but more than that I was interested to see what kind of movie Reese Witherspoon would pick as her first after a two-year hiatus, especially since I'd liked pretty much everything I'd seen her in before. Sadly, that streak has come to an end, because despite the strong cast, How Do You Know was mediocre at best.

I think that writer-director James L. Brooks and I just aren't on the same wavelength. I didn't care for As Good As It Gets and found Spanglish disappointing and scattered. With How Do You Know, Brooks has continued his streak of well-cast films that can't get past the poor script, and with respect to the writing, this one was the worst of the three.

Things just sort of... happened. Characters behaved oddly with little to no warning and often for no apparent reason. Important relationships were insufficiently explained, leaving me with no clear idea of how or why the people involved should have been acting. Neither of the main characters' plotlines made a lot of sense, nor did they come together or resolve in any meaningful way. It was just a strange, barely connected series of scenes, many of which didn't work individually and none of which worked together to form a coherent whole.

Mind you, I've seen all of the principal actors (and most of the supporting ones) do great work before. I have to give them an A for effort here, because the performances were about as good as they could be. It made it all the more frustrating when they were able to find ways to make moments click, because it was easy to see how good the movie could have been if it had been better written. Alas, it was not to be.

 


Viewed: 12/30/2010 | Released: 12/17/2010 | Score: C-

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True Grit

I think the first question most people will ask when you mention that you've just seen a particular movie is "How was it?" When I got that question after seeing the Coen brothers' new version of True Grit, the best I could manage was a noncommittal "Uh, yeah, it was good."

Now, you'd think that being a fan of the Coens, Jeff Bridges, and Westerns, this movie would be the type to immediately garner lavish praise from me. The problem, though, is that I'm also a giant fan of the 1969 John Wayne version of the film, so both before and after I found myself with a deep ambivalence about the very existence of a remake.

Remakes, in general, are always problematic for me. It's the kind of thing critics and movie buffs have been bemoaning for years, the bottom-line orientation of the modern studios having lead to a glut of remakes and sequels and a dearth of new, creative work. The Coens, of course, tried to head off such criticism by claiming that their film was a new adaptation of the original 1968 novel rather than a remake of the Wayne film, but that always struck me as splitting hairs.

Unlike most remakes, though, the Coens' True Grit is neither shallow nor technically incompetent--quite the opposite, in fact. What's more, I have to say that it does, indeed, bring something new to the story. The 1969 film is a classic, an iconic movie that cannot be replaced. The new one may not be either, but I don't think the comparison really does right by either movie, and having had some time to think it over, I've decided that the best thing is to simply take this new version on its own merits.

When you do that, it's easy to realize that it's a very well-crafted film. The Coen brothers visual aesthetic, which worked so well with a Western setting in No Country for Old Men, made for stunning scenes. Their signature Coen-y weirdness worked well when they needed a comic moment, but they used it sparingly enough to allow the film an earnestness that made the dramatic moments effective. The performances, too, were excellent. Jeff Bridges was great, of course, bringing a more menacing touch to the character of Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon was also quite good, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld was perfect as Mattie Ross.

I'm still not on board with the idea of remakes, especially not of classics or of movies that were done right the first time around. I have to admit, though, that there are times when a fresh point of view can make something new that, while perhaps not better than the original, is at least worthy to stand in its company.


Viewed: 12/26/2010 | Released: 12/22/2010 | Score: A-

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Tangled

I've been a bit ambivalent about Disney movies for a while now, and particularly with Disney princess movies. Like everyone, I grew up with the Disney classics--Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, as well as the newer ones, at least from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King. I loved those movies as a child, and like most bits of entertainment from my past, they'll always have a special place in my heart.

As I've grown up and revisited some of the movies with adult eyes, I've noticed things about the stories and characters that don't sit well with me. I've talked about my issues with Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid before. It all boils down to Disney's general tendency toward facile storytelling, which has become ever more obvious since the arrival of Pixar in the mid-nineties, who continue to show how much depth you can achieve with "children's" movies.

So, going into this movie--Disney's new take on the Rapnuzel story--I didn't have very high expectations. But since I only went as an experiment in family movie-watching, I didn't really care much about what I was seeing. Surprisingly--and I have to wonder if it's precisely because of the comparison with Pixar--but Tangled turned out to be both very entertaining and rather nuanced.

Structurally, Tangled has a lot in common with most other Disney princess movies. You have the wistful girl singing about what she wants, the dashing, handsome male lead who leads her on a transformative journey, and so on. And, like the other modern Disney animated movies, you have the wisecracks.

Where it's different is in the characterizations. Here, instead of being a damsel in distress or a rebellious teenager, Rapunzel finds herself in her predicament mainly out of a sense of duty. And rather than a cartoonishly villainous antagonist, the "evil stepmother" here turns out to be merely selfish. This sets up a dynamic between the two that is both more plausible and considerably more interesting.

Of course, no story, however well written, can work as a film without good acting, and here Tangled does very well. The movie is essentially carried on the shoulders of the three leads: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, and Donna Murphy, and each of them executes perfectly. The humor never feels forced or desperate, nor do the emotions ever feel dishonest. What's more, the animation is simply brilliant, with so many details of the facial expressions and body language being just spot on.

My only difficulty came with Levi's performance, but not through any fault of his. No, he did a wonderful job here, but after watching him in Chuck for two seasons, it was just too difficult for me to separate his voice from his character in that show, which in many ways is the polar opposite of his Flynn Rider in this movie.

Of course, it's possible that my opinion of Tangled is colored by the fact that it was the first movie outing I took with my son. On the other hand, the fact that it kept him entertained for an hour and a half does speak to its quality. I'd say that whether you have kids or you just enjoy solid animated entertainment, this one is well worth your time.


Viewed: 12/4/2010 | Released: 11/24/2010 | Score: A-

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