This year, our best friends gave me and Juliette gift certificates for a night at the movies for Christmas, along with a promise to babysit while we were out. As you might have guessed from the steep drop-off in movie reviews over the last six months, this was a real treat for us. What with the Oscars coming up and all of the attendant buzz, the choice of what to see was a little daunting, but we were able to narrow it down pretty quickly to either The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire. Benjamin Button being over two and a half hours long, we opted for Slumdog. Well, I don't know how Benjamin Button would have been, but this was a fantastic choice for our night out.
On the off chance you haven't heard of this one--it won four Golden Globes and got ten Oscar nominations, so people have been talking about it a lot--Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young man, Jamal, who makes it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the opening of the film Jamal is one question shy of winning the top prize of twenty million rupees but has been arrested on suspicion of cheating because of the incredulity of an uneducated kid from the Mumbai slums being able to correctly answer so many trivia questions. Much of the rest of the story is told in flashback, showing scenes from Jamal's life that explain how he knew the answers to the specific questions he was asked.
I have to say, I loved this movie. The look it gave into life in the Mumbai slums was gut-wrenching, but there were also laughs and love. None of the performances really stood out as particularly amazing--though I did appreciate Irfan Khan's turn as the police inspector who interrogates Jamal--but everyone was competent, and the story was so compelling, and both Juliette and I left the theater feeling good.
A final note: Slumdog won the Golden Globe for best score, and is nominated for the Oscar in the same category, and I heartily agree with both. The music in this film was just great, and I plan on getting the soundtrack as soon as I have some spare cash.
Viewed: 1/31/2009 | Released: 11/12/2008 | Score: A
By Sherwood Smith
Whew. Seven hundred seventy-four pages in four days should tell you something about how much I liked this book. Picking up right where the first book left off, The Fox had everything I liked about Inda but moreso.
The first book gave us a glimpse at a very rich and interesting world, but most of the major characters are all from the same country, and even when we later get introduced to the wider world through Inda's sea travels, most of his time is spent aboard ship, so all we get of the rest of the world is through bits of dialogue here and there. By contrast, in The Fox, Smith brings us to all kinds of new places, each one with a strongly developed history and flavor, each with plausible national interests and goals. Smith presents them in such a way that you get an idea of the individual culture of each place, but she does it without resorting to the kind of flat stereotyping you so often see in big fantasy worlds. (You know, where everybody from this country is a greedy merchant and everybody from that country is a strong, savage warrior.) The characters and personal relationships introduced at every new place seem genuine and relatable.
The strong character development in the first novel continues in the second, especially in the protagonist. His transition to adulthood is handled very skillfully--you recognize both the child you first met and the ways in which his life has shaped him in the man he becomes. And, as before, you get to see so much of the inner workings of even relatively minor characters that they all come to life in a really compelling way.
Further, for a relatively long book, it's very well paced. Events are neither drawn out nor rushed, but everything seems to happen right when it should. I was certainly never bored--I could hardly put the book down!
In fact, the only problem I had was that I was so into this book that I had trouble keeping up with the other stuff I wanted to do--the hard drive on my Tivo, for example, is getting pretty full. I thought I might get a little break after this book, but, to both my delight and chagrin, the Amazon shipment containing the next installment, King's Shield, arrived on the same day I finished The Fox. So, it looks like I'm going to stay busy for a while. The fourth book isn't scheduled to come out until August, so on the one hand I'll have a little time to catch up on the rest of my life, but on the other hand I know the waiting is going to bug me.
Started: 1/26/2009 | Finished: 1/30/2009
By Sherwood Smith
I have to say, I'm a little surprised by how much I liked Inda. The story is fairly commonplace--a talented young man trains to become a military commander, and in the process he gets swept up into the world-shaking events of his time, destined to become a hero. I've certainly read that one several times before, and I'm sure I will again. What's more, the writing isn't all that great. The author, Sherwood Smith, has this strange tendency to shift perspectives from one character to another abruptly and without warning, which is often jarring.
Despite that, though, I was absolutely riveted, and when the book came to its abrupt ending I was upset that I didn't already have the sequels. (Indeed, the fourth book isn't even coming out until August.) I have, of course, always been a sucker for a coming-of-age story, but, more than that, the world and characters of Inda were quite compelling. The cavalry-based military culture of the Marlovans combined with their language (several words of which you're introduced to throughout the book) evoke images of the Mongols and the Germanic tribes of medieval Europe. But there's more than that. Much of the history of this world is lost to the characters, but a huge backstory is hinted at that seems really interesting--magic, other races, fallen kingdoms, and so on--and perhaps important in later books.
I mentioned changes in point-of-view before, which are odd and often annoying. But they are also a big part of what make the characters so interesting. By seeing so much of each character's internal thoughts, each one is invested with a depth you don't normally see in minor characters. The only problem is that I wound up getting attached to a few characters who didn't end up making it through the book.
It's rare that I read two books in a row that I enjoy so thoroughly, and since I have a good chunk left in both this series and the Black Company series, it looks like I may have a hard time deciding what to read next. Which, when you come down to it, isn't such a bad problem to have.
Started: 1/13/2009 | Finished: 1/20/2009
Chronicles of the Black Company
By Glen Cook
I heard about Glen Cook's Black Company books via a discussion in the forum, wherein Raja (of Strobelight Review fame) thanked another member for recommending it to him. Now I, in turn, have to thank him for turning me on to this series, because it's the best fantasy I've read in quite some time.
Chronicles of the Black Company is a collection of the first three of Glen Cook's Black Company novels, which follows the exploits of the titular mercenary company over the course of a war between the forces of good and evil. That description makes this seem like just another standard fantasy series, though, which couldn't be further from the truth. To begin with, the Black Company is on the wrong side of the war--they work for the bad guys. But there's more to it than that, because the sharply defined morality that you're used to seeing in fantasy worlds isn't present. There sometimes seems to be little distinguishing the two sides in the conflict, other than that they are fighting each other. The whole thing is presented from a ground-level view with a gritty realism that has more in common with Vietnam War fiction than Tolkien.
I can't recommend this series highly enough. The collection containing the next three books is already out, with the following collection coming soon, and I can't wait to get my hands on them.
Started: 12/12/2008 | Finished: 1/8/2009
Marley and Me
I had some serious misgivings about this one when I first heard it was going to be made. I loved the book, but I just didn't think it was the sort of thing that Hollywood would handle right. When I heard that Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were going to be the leads, my suspicions deepened. With that kind of cast, I figured the movie would turn out to be a slapstick-y mess--pretty much Beethoven with a lab. But, I am happy to say that the movie exceeded my expectations.
I still don't think that the movie really should have been made--nothing is really added to the experience in the transition to film. They also changed the story in ways that I thought were quite unnecessary, turning John Grogan into a man trapped in a domestic life he doesn't want, dreaming of being a hotshot reporter. Still, the filmmakers managed to capture a lot of what I really loved about the book and, sure enough, I cried at the end. Owen Wilson particularly surprised me by turning in a performance with some real emotional depth to it beyond the normal bumbling comedic hero he usually plays--though, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been all that surprised, as some of his work with Wes Anderson has also been pretty heartfelt.
All in all, it was a pretty good movie, and I think if you like dogs and haven't read the book, you'll probably like this version of Marley and Me.
Viewed: 12/26/2008 | Released: 12/25/2008 | Score: B-
Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies
By Andrew Jefford
Before sitting down to write this review, I poured myself a glass of Bruichladdich single malt scotch. (The Links Torrey Pines edition, to be precise.) I bought the bottle earlier in the day, inspired largely by what Andrew Jefford wrote in Peat Smoke and Spirit. The scotch is good. So is the book.
A large portion of Peat Smoke and Spirit is, as the title would lead you to believe, about the distilleries of the Scottish island of Islay, and the whiskies they produce. That alone would be enough for me, and Jefford certainly describes the liquor beautifully. But the book encompasses so much more than that--more or less everything about Islay that you could want to know, from the history and geography and people to the flora and fauna and even the geology of the island. Having now read all about it, I have to say: I can't think of any place with a comparably inhospitable climate that I am so keen to visit. Jefford's love of the place is quite apparent from the way he writes about it--the prose is rich and inviting, never dull for a moment--and it really made me want to experience it for myself.
I think just about anyone with an interest in scotch or Scotland will enjoy this book. Just be aware that reading it may make you thirsty.
Started: 10/27/2008 | Finished: 12/8/2008
By Dan Simmons
It may not be completely legit to review all four of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels in the same article--it's questionable whether the series functions as a single, cohesive whole, or two parts, or four. One review is less work for me, though, which makes me considerably less likely to quit. (Please, don't hurt me.)
The four novels of the Hyperion series--Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion--easily split into two parts. The first two books follow a group of characters on a pilgramage to a planet on the edge of a huge interstellar empire--each one hoping to find the answers to the mysterious events of his life, while the rest of humanity is on the brink of war. The second two books are set several hundred years later, showing the aftermath and resolution of the events in the first half of the series.
The first book is just fantastic. Structurally, Hyperion resembles The Canterbury Tales--each of the pilgrims telling his own story to the rest as they move toward their uncertain destination--and it's very well done. Each story is distinct in style and memorable in its own right, and Simmons weaves them together wonderfully. In fact, if the series had ended with the first book, I think I wouldn't have minded, despite the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger.
The second book wasn't quite as interesting from a writing standpoint as the first, but the ideas presented were interesting and it provided what I thought was a very satisfying resolution to the action in the first. Several mysteries remain by the end of Fall, but somehow they seemed to be the sort that didn't need explaining.
Unfortunately, the third and fourth novels didn't really live up to the first two. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy them at all, but big chunks of the text got bogged down in discussions about human history and the nature of the universe. Even when there was action taking place, I often found myself skimming over the scenes, just trying to see what happens next.
Overall, I'd say that this series was worth the read, but I most likely won't come back to it.
Started: 7/21/2008 | Finished: 9/24/2008
Marley and Me
By John Grogan
Ever since Juliette and I got our dog, Cooper, people have been telling us that we had to read Marley and Me. Juliette finally got around to it as part of her annual summer reading kick and convinced me to pick it up next. After V, I needed something easy to read that would get me emotionally involved. Well, this fit that bill perfectly. I'm always a little suspicious of bestsellers, but this was just great.
As a dog owner, there was a lot I found familiar, both in the highs and lows of Grogan's life with Marley. Cooper isn't anywhere near as neurotic as Marley, but he has had some bad times, and in Marley's antics I could recognize some echoes of Cooper's worse moments. And, likewise, the joy of having such a loving, faithful companion is something that, I think, all dog lovers will recognize.
It's strange how having a dog has changed my outlook on this sort of thing. Just a couple of years ago, I don't think that I would really have connected with this book. All of this dog stuff just seemed a little silly to me. And now? Well, I can tell you that by the end of this book I was literally bawling.
Marley and Me was hilarious and heartwarming in turn, and I have to agree that it's a must-read for any dog lover--assuming there are any left who haven't already read it.
Started: 7/12/2008 | Finished: 7/20/2008
The Dark Knight
So, as usual, this review is very late. So late that surely everyone who wants to see it must have done so. I do have a good excuse this time, though. But enough of that--what did I think of the movie? Well, I have to say, I had very high expectations going in and I was not disappointed.
Naturally, most of the buzz surrounding this film centered around Heath Ledger, it being his last completed film. And, indeed, his performance as the Joker was simply amazing. Nicholson's Joker (in Tim Burton's Batman) certainly must have been a shock to people who were used to seeing Cesar Romero in the old TV show. But as far as Nicholson took his performance, Ledger did that much more with his Joker. The amazing--and kind of scary--thing about Ledger's Joker is that he seems so plausible. And that plausibility is, in part, what makes The Dark Knight seem like less a superhero movie than a thriller that just happens to have a superhero in it.
I think that difference in tone is a big part of what makes this such a good movie. I mean, we're all getting a little sick of the superhero thing, I think. There have just been too many of them in the past few years, and they're all kind of running together. It's mostly the same combination of special effects and superhero angst. So, seeing a movie like this one where the film doesn't really revolve around the title character is quite a breath of fresh air.
What else. I have tended to like Aaron Eckhart in the other movies I've seen him in, and I continue to like him in this one. (Just a note, the rest of this paragraph will contain some mild spoilers for those who are unfamiliar with the Batman universe.) He did particularly well in this one leading up to his change into Two-Face, giving his performance just the right touch to show us an bright, upstanding District Attorney while hinting at what he will become. Unfortunately, he didn't really manage the transition into villain quite as well--his wrath at the end of the movie just came off as a little cartoonish.
As usual, Michael Caine was a pleasure to watch, and if Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal were good without being great, that's OK because the movie wasn't really focused on them. (It really only disappoints at all just because I've seen both of them do really amazing stuff in the past.) Similarly, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman got the job done and I can't find any flaws with their work here, but they also didn't particularly wow me--which they shouldn't have.
This is the last movie I saw before my son was born, which means it'll be the last one I see in the theaters for a while. I'm glad that I'm ending this run on such a high note.
Viewed: 7/19/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: A
I'm really disappointed that I saw this as a movie before I saw it on stage. Mamma Mia! has been one of Juliette's favorite musicals since she first saw it in London, eight years ago. (She's since seen it three more times.) So it's no surprise that she was excited about the film. Still, I was a little apprehensive, as I often am about film adaptations of stage musicals. After all, I just about died laughing when I saw Jason Alexander and Martin Short in the L.A. production of The Producers, but the movie version was so lame I hardly cracked a smile. As it turned out, I was right to be suspicious.
One of the biggest obstacles to successfully adapting a stage musical to film is that acting styles are so different between stage and screen. On stage, everything tends to be big, from movements and facial expressions to tone of voice. On the other hand, the camera can capture every tiny detail, so performances tend to be much more subtle and realistic. But subtle and realistic don't work well in a genre where people burst into song out of nowhere. Back in the days of, say, The Sound of Music, film actors were much more presentational in their performances, and, besides, Technicolor just didn't look much like real life. Nowadays, though, a movie has to actually work to be that way. When you look at films like Moulin Rouge or Chicago you see a much more stylized approach to the visuals and performances. Even films that take a more realistic style like, say, Rent or Hairspray, still have a feeling of fantasy to them. Mamma Mia! just didn't have that, and most noticeable way that affected the movie was to make the songs stick out like sore thumbs. That could have been alleviated with some better film and sound editing, but, unfortunately, it wasn't. Especially in the first half of the movie, the songs all just kind of came out of nowhere. It was very jarring.
Another problem? Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. What's more, he knows it. Man, there is little that is more uncomfortable than watching someone sing who knows he's doing a bad job. I respect Brosnan as an actor, but I really think he needs to stick to non-singing parts from now on.
And, of course, as always, I couldn't stand Meryl Streep. Here's an actress who is completely aware of the degree to which she is praised, and it comes out in every moment of her performances. There are few performers I've seen who seem more self-indulgent.
But, despite all that, it wasn't all bad. Juliette and I both particularly liked Amanda Seyfriend, who played Sophie, the girl looking for her father. As Juliette put it, she was "the perfect blend of beautiful and cute." I couldn't agree more--she was just radiant in this film, and her performance had this youthful exuberance that was delightful. What's more, she was an excellent singer, by far the best in the show.
Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were also quite good, and while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard were both shaky on the vocals, they did alright and were fun to watch.
So, I can't say that I particularly enjoyed this movie, but I got a sense of what the stage play must be like and I'm sure it's much better. Hopefully, having seen the film first won't have ruined it for me.
Viewed: 7/18/2008 | Released: 7/18/2008 | Score: C+