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Tallying Up

In 2013 I read the most books of any year since I started keeping a reading log (39); I saw about the same number of movies as I have every year since Jason was born (8); and I wrote fewer reviews than I have in this history of this blog (2). By now, I'm past pretending that there will ever be a regular review column here anymore, but I nevertheless find it somewhat comforting to take time now and then to reflect on the stories and pop culture I've taken in. Thus, here are a few impressions of the previously unreviewed movies and books from 2013:

Books:

The Engineer Trilogy, by K. J. Parker: A number of people whose opinions I respect spoke highly of K. J. Parker's work in general, and of this series in particular, so I was excited to finally check it out. But although I do agree that Parker's writing was excellent, I nevertheless found this story quite unenjoyable. As I put it to a friend when I was midway through the second book, "If I am not interested in any of the characters, why should I care about anything they do? If I don't care about any of the characters or anything they do, what is left to care about in a narrative story?"

Abbaddon's Gate, by James S. A. Corey: I have really enjoyed seeing how this series has progressed from its pre-publication roots to this latest installment, and I'm really looking forward to the next one. In terms of balancing entertainment and literary value, this was probably the best thing I read all year.

The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: I started reading this series in middle school, and gave up on it in college, at which point it was still only about two-thirds finished. Coming back to it as an adult was interesting--on the one hand revisiting the places and characters I had loved as a kid was very nostalgic, even comforting. On the other hand, the poor writing was much harder to look past. Still, it was nice to finally get some closure on it.

The Gentleman Bastards series, by Scott Lynch: I don't think I would ever have thought to put a series of caper stories into a high fantasy setting, but the results were highly entertaining. I'm very much looking forward to where this series goes next.

Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson: Sanderson has been kind of hit-or-miss for me, but I think that the fact that this story is explicitly for a YA audience makes it work a lot better for me than some of his previous work.

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: I used to go back and re-read this along with The Hobbit every year, so this was probably the tenth or so time I've read it. It's been quite a while since the last time--almost a decade--but it remains one of my favorites.

The Dresden Files, books 7-14, by Jim Butcher: I read these eight books in two weeks, and the only reason I stopped there is because the next one hasn't been released yet. Loads of fun.

Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik: I'm not sure that Novik's worldbuilding has been very consistent across this entire series, but nonetheless her stories are pretty entertaining. I'm in for the long haul on this series.

Movies:

Quartet: This was a small and, as far as I know, fairly unknown movie, but for all that I think it was probably my favorite of the year. A really lovely story about aging and music.

Admission: Going into this one, I expected it to be boring, predictable, and mostly unfunny with a sprinkling of excruciating awkwardness. And although that turned out to be more or less correct, getting to have dinner and a movie with Juliette is always nice.

Star Trek Into Darkness: After this one ended Juliette asked me if I liked it, and my response to her was that it wasn't really a Star Trek movie but, all the same, I still enjoyed the heck out of it. I'm not sure it will hold up to repeat viewings, but the writers knew just how to hit me, a lifelong fan, where I live.

Monsters University: I ended up liking this one much more than I thought I would. I still don't know that it was really necessary--few sequels and even fewer prequels are--but it had its moments, for sure.

Planes: It's funny how a completely mediocre and forgettable movie can be made so much better by seeing it with your five-year-old son.

12 Years a Slave: This movie was brilliantly acted, beautifully filmed, and near perfectly executed. It is an important film, one that has been and will continue to be rightly showered with awards. I think I may be a better person for having seen it. And I never, ever want to see it again.

Anchorman 2: There was simply no way that this movie could ever have the impact or quotability of the original, but despite the fact that it recycled a bit too much from the first one, I still laughed my ass off quite a few times.

Les Miserables

I don't know how the cool kids feel about Les Mis these days, whether they hate it for being too schlocky and mainstream or whether they love it because it's kind of cool to hate it. No matter; it's a rare occasion that I'm accused of being cool.

I've seen two stage productions of Les Misérables: an abridged school production when I was in high school, and a traveling production at LA's Ahmanson Theater when I was in college. I've also listened to the 10th Anniversary concert album about a hundred times. I know the songs so well that I used to pass the time in the filing room by singing the entire thing to myself, back when I had a summer job at a title company.

So, you know, I guess I'm a little biased.

Here's the thing: I know that Les Misérables is melodramatic and overwrought. I know that the music is sentimental as all get-out, and that the lyrics are often clumsy. I can't help it, though--I still get a lump in my throat when I hear Fantine singing about the dream she dreamed.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this movie. On the one hand, as I've mentioned, I do enjoy this musical and I was intrigued by the trailer, which showcased the way they recorded the actors' vocals in scene, rather than having them lip-sync. On the other hand, I wasn't sure about some of the casting, especially Russell Crowe as Javert--sure, I respect him enough as an actor to know that he could do something with the part in a non-musical, but here he'd have to sing. It had also been over a decade since I last saw the play performed, and I wasn't sure if my opinion might have changed as I aged.

As it happens, many of my concerns were borne out, but I still enjoyed this movie.

Some of the vocal performances were, indeed, a bit heavy-handed. Russell Crowe, in particular, had a near total lack of nuance to his singing, with every number sounding thin and boring in the same way. I was reminded a bit of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!--oddly, both movies had Amanda Seyfried in the ingenue role. Seyfried, herself, was a bit uneven--her pitch was fine, and actually her soprano range was quite impressive, but there was an odd warble to her singing that made me think of the Disney Snow White--something that I don't recall coming out when she was singing a bit lower in Mamma Mia!--and she, too, didn't have quite the emotional range that I would have liked. Samantha Barks' Éponine was OK if a little overwrought, but then I imagine most anyone would have a hard time living up to Lea Salonga, so I'll give her a pass.

Still, one thing that film gave this production that the stage can have trouble delivering was the opportunity for softness. On stage, even with mikes, actors tend to have to project out to the last row, but on camera they can be a little more subtle. Hugh Jackman was a bit hit-or-miss, but when he was good he was very good; I wished for less belting in "Bring Him Home," but thought he brought something pretty special to "Who Am I?" and "Valjean's Soliloquy." Eddie Redmayne's performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was as good as any I've heard, maybe better. Even some of the minor roles found some interesting ways to play their parts--the foreman in "At the End of the Day" was refreshingly devoid of bluster while managing to be exactly as sleazy as he needed to be. And it was a nice surprise to see Colm Wilkinson--who played Valjean in the original London and Broadway productions--show up as the Bishop.

But the real star--and surprise--for me was Anne Hathaway. I knew that Hathaway is a capable actress, having seen her tackle some complex roles in Brokeback Mountain and Rachel Getting Married. And I knew she could sing from things like Rio and the Oscars. But it was that last one that made me wonder whether she could do both at the same time, since her performance as Oscar host was needy and quite the opposite of subtle. So I was quite impressed with how dynamic she made her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream," despite the fact that most of that number was filmed with a static camera, up close, in one long shot. (A lot of the big numbers were filmed that way, which I imagine was largely due to the fact that they were recording the vocals live--most likely that meant that everything had to be done in one take. That puts a lot of pressure on the actor to make it interesting.) She really nailed it; I got choked up.

The non-vocal parts of the production suffered from the same unevenness. The camera work was at times odd and distracting, with odd angles and weird cuts--or lack thereof. As I mentioned, the long shots were very demanding for the actors, not all of whom lived up to the challenge. But at the same time, I also felt that cinematographically, a lot of the movie was quite beautiful, especially the close-ups--if those shots had been stills, they'd have made some really interesting portraits.

There were also a number of changes to the songs, some of which were very strange. I understand that in order to fit the entire musical into a film of reasonable length--and at 2 hours and 37 minutes, this one was pushing it--some cuts were going to have to be made. But why add a whole new song, then? And why cut out just certain parts of some of the duets? Leaving Javert to sing parts of "The Confrontation" alone, for example, when Crowe could only have been helped by having Jackman take some of the focus off his weak voice. Director Tom Hooper made some choices that just felt weird to me, but perhaps I'm nitpicking.

This isn't a perfect film, and most likely isn't the best version of Les Misérables ever produced, but there were enough things done right that I feel comfortable giving it a good recommendation to anyone who enjoys musicals.


Viewed: 1/1/2013 | Released: 12/25/2012 | Score: B-

IMDb Page

Year-End Reviews

If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."

Let's get down to it then, shall we?

Books:

Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.

Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:

"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."

I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)

The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.

I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)

Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)

The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)

 

Films:

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)

The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)

Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)

Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)

Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)

Brave

I estimate that I've seen each of the Toy Story movies at least fifteen times over the past four years. Those being Jason's most enduringly favorite movies over his life, that's no surprise, but in fact I've seen most of the Pixar features multiple times. Cars probably ten times, Cars 2 three or four, Finding Nemo seven or eight, A Bug's Life three, Up nine or ten. The one exception has been Wall-E, which I've seen exactly once, only because we don't own it. And now, of course, Brave.

I mention all of this because many of Pixar's movies hold up quite well to repeated viewings, even over a relatively short span of time. Some are better than others, but so far the only one that I find really grates on me is Cars 2, and, thankfully, Jason doesn't ask for that one often. By and large, though, I'm able to keep coming back to these movies and still enjoy them.

With that in mind, I'm curious to know how well Brave will fare after the fifth or tenth time I've seen it--as I'm sure Jason will insist on getting it as soon as the Blu-Ray comes out.

Now, overall I have to admit that I liked this movie quite a bit. As I've come to expect from Pixar, the animation and voice acting were superb, the comedy was well done, and there were moments of genuine emotion, especially near the climax. And while I agree with some of the critics who've wished that the filmmakers had done more to create a more feminist story (which is to say: one without princesses), I think that it's clear that the writers and directors were at least trying to break out of the typical family movie mold, and I think they deserve credit for that. It's been said before, but the fact that this company is so consistently able to churn out such high quality work is nothing short of astonishing.

Still, one of the things that struck me as I left the movie was how straightforward and simple the plot was. Unlike some recent favorites like Up and Toy Story 3, I never really felt very surprised by anything that happened, and if not for the fact that the voice acting was so good and the relationships so well realized, Brave might not have had much emotional impact for me.

Of course, throwing out an "if not for" like that sort of trivializes just how good those aspects were. Billy Connolly's distinctive voice has always been one of my favorites, and I don't think I've ever seen Emma Thompson not do well in a movie. And I've been a fan of Kelly Macdonald since No Country For Old Men made me go back and revisit her earlier work, so it was quite gratifying to hear her adding her talents to this movie as well.

And then there's all the rest: the wonderfully atmospheric setting, the comedy, the animation managing to be highly expressive with surprisingly few words, the characterization. There's a lot to admire about Brave.

So the question is, will all of that good stuff be enough to keep me coming back despite the sort of weak main plot? I think it most likely will, since after the twentieth viewing it's really the characters that hold my interest. Only time will tell, though.


Viewed: 6/29/2012 | Released: 6/22/2012 | Score: B+

IMDb Page

Catching Up: Movies

I've somehow managed to average one movie a month since December, largely due to the fact that Jason is old enough to go to the theater now. That's way up from the past few years, but on the other hand, taking Jason with me means my choice of films has changed somewhat.

The Muppets: There aren't that many movies I get excited to see with Jason, but this was one of the few recent ones that fell into that category. I know that a number of purists--including Frank Oz--felt that too much license was taken with the characters, but for me this newest in a long line of Muppet movies hit all the right notes. The movie is overtly nostalgic, most of which would likely miss the younger audience members--especially those who are under the age of 4. But it worked perfectly on me, managing to both bring me back to my own childhood while still being clever enough to appeal to my current, "mature" self. And Jason liked it, too. (Viewed 12/27/2011.)

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: Look, sometimes you just need something to do that will keep your kid occupied. This was not a good movie, but that came as no surprise, and though I wasn't thrilled to see it, it also wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It gave me an excuse to eat popcorn and candy with my son, so at least on one level it was successful. (Viewed 1/2/2012.)

Beauty and the Beast 3D: Just as with the recent 3D re-release of The Lion King, I think that this movie was poorly served by the addition of 3D and I wish they'd leave well enough alone. Because we have it on DVD, Jason has seen Beauty and the Beast at least 20 times, so when I saw that it was coming back to the big screen I knew there was no way we'd be missing it. The thing is, though, it didn't need the 3D--we would have seen it anyway. Without the glasses sucking up the light from the screen, we'd have been able to see all of the color and brightness we were supposed to see. But the theater chains have to have some way to make money, and jacking up the ticket prices for 3D movies is the flavor of the week. As to the movie itself, I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with the "love" story the more I watch it and the closer I get to my daughter being able to understand movies, but at this point it's become such a fixture in Jason's film life that I'm kind of stuck with it. (Viewed 1/21/2012.)

The Hunger Games: When the buzz around this movie first started and Juliette asked me whether or not I wanted to see it, I gave the following reasons for why I did not:

  1. I enjoyed the book and found it well-paced, full of action, and with a compelling central character, and I didn't see what the movie could possibly add to the experience.
  2. Film as a medium is great at showing action and visual scenery, but it is bad at showing the internal state of its characters. So much of the book revolves around what Katniss is thinking and how she feels, and it's just not possible for a movie to do a good job of showing all of that, especially not in a couple of hours.
  3. In order to fit into a reasonable amount of time, parts of the book would definitely have to be cut out, but the book was already lean enough that there was a strong risk of important nuance or characterization or plot being left out.

As we were walking out of the theater after the movie, she asked me what I thought, and I told her that everything I thought beforehand, I still thought. It turned out to be about as good an adaptation as could be hoped for, and several of the performances were pretty good--Jennifer Lawrence, of course, but I also quite liked Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. At the end of the day, though, the movie just didn't bring anything new to the table--I really could have done without it. (Viewed 4/12/2012.)

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: I've been a fan of Aardman Animations since high school, when a friend of mine introduced me to Wallace and Gromit. I was really excited when Chicken Run came out. So the fact that I got to have a fun Daddy-Jason day at the movies at a time when this one was available was a real treat. I'm not sure I would put this latest title quite as high as some of the earlier favorites, but I found Pirates to be thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of the voice acting was top notch--Hugh Grant did a wonderful job, I thought, and I quite enjoyed Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson as well. I was also surprised and delighted to see that David Tennant provided the voice of Charles Darwin. Overall, a cute and fun movie that made for a fun afternoon out with my boy. (Viewed 4/28/2012.)

Fall Review Roundup

Here's a brief, non-inclusive list of things that have happened since I wrote my last review: I had a birthday, Jason had a birthday, the seasons changed, I shot my first wedding, and my daughter was born.  I also read five books and saw three movies.  Here are some quick takes, just to help me get caught up:

The Wise Man's Fear: After such a strong debut and after waiting impatiently for as long as I did, I was a little worried that the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle wouldn't live up to my hopes. I needn't have worried, though--this second chapter may be even better. I'm not sure how Rothfuss will be able to wrap up this series in just one more book--there seems to be so much story still untold--and I'm sure that it will be years yet before I get to find out, but, man, I'm hooked. (Read 6/26/11 - 6/30/11.)

Manhood for Amateurs: I received this as a birthday present from a friend of mine who has very good taste in books, and who paid me the incredible compliment of telling me that she chose this for me because it reminded her of my writing. Having read it, I can kind of see what she means, in that the essays in this collection are about the same sorts of things that I tend to think and write about: fatherhood, American culture, pivotal moments of his youth and young adulthood. The difference is in the quality of writing--it almost seems impossible but his prose is both unmistakeably in his voice, so particular to himself, but at the same time so resonant and familiar that it felt like he was reading my mind. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy the stuff I write here, you will love this book. (Read 7/6/11 - 8/15/11.)

Cars 2: It seems thin praise, but mostly what I can think to say about this movie is that it's not as bad as everybody said it was. Sure, there wasn't much to it, a lot of the milieu didn't make sense, and the first movie was better. But it was a fun little diversion, and Jason liked it enough that he's still talking about some of the characters three months later. (Viewed 7/9/11.)

Winnie the Pooh: I wish I could tell you more about this movie, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and didn't wake up until the credits rolled. What I do remember seemed a little smug in its postmodernity--the movie is presented as a book being read, and it breaks the fourth wall several times by having the characters interact with the printed text of the book--but the characters were mostly as I remembered them and Jason liked it. ("Viewed" 7/17/11.)

Storm Front and Fool Moon: One of my co-workers loaned me the first two books in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, and I tore through both of them in three days. They were, as he presented them, quite fluffy but very fun reads. Urban fantasy isn't typically one of my favorite genres, but I enjoyed the characters and the fast-paced, action-mystery plots, and I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series one of these days. (Read 8/16/11 - 8/18/11.)

The Lion King: Ever since we got that CD of Disney songs for Jason, I've been excited for him to see The Lion King, and he's been excited as well. When it came to theaters in advance of the Blu-Ray release (I could go on and on about how much I hate the whole concept of the Disney Vault, but that didn't stop me from snapping up the Diamond Edition as soon as it became available) we headed over to our local cineplex, where we found that the only showing at a good time for us was in the 3D theater. Which is unfortunate, because this movie was really not well-served by being re-done in 3D. Let's leave aside the argument that 3D is gimmicky and distracting and potentially migraine-inducing--the bigger problem is that the 3D version is way too dark. This is a movie that is all about bright, beautiful, cinematic scenes, and to have it all smothered and dulled by light-eating 3D glasses is just shameful. It looks better on my TV at home, and that's just not right. (Viewed 9/17/11.)

I do have one more book left to review, but since I just finished it a couple of days ago I'm going to let it marinate a bit more and give it its own post, hopefully next week.  Until then, have a happy Halloween!

Just a little administrative note: I'm no longer part of Amazon's affiliate program, so I no longer receive a commission for sales through links on this site.  The links are there now only as a convenience to you.

Kung Fu Panda 2

The Monday after I saw Kung Fu Panda 2, I mentioned to a coworker that I had done so. "I'm sorry," was his response. Which struck me as strange, since not only was it quite a good movie, but so was the first one. It turned out that he hadn't seen either, but it really speaks to the perception of DreamWorks as an animation studio that he would jump to such a conclusion.

Not that I can really blame him, of course. DreamWorks Animation initially made its name with Shrek, which wasn't bad (even though I do think it's ludicrous that it beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature). But then came the second and third Shrek movies, which were awful, not to mention such gems as Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Madagascar, and Bee Movie. After such a long string of stinkers, I had, like my coworker, pretty much written off the studio.

Starting in 2008, though, with Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks seems to have finally gotten its act together. The first Kung Fu Panda was a lot of fun, and 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was strong enough to give Pixar's offering from that year--Toy Story 3--a serious run for its money. In fact, I'm still not sure which I like better. And heck, even the fourth Shrek movie was decent.

So, coming into Kung Fu Panda 2, I had high hopes and expectations, and I'm happy to say that they were all met. I really liked it. I liked all of the returning cast--Jack Black, of course, as well as Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, James Jong, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu. Together, they formed a very effective ensemble, with a very good mix of comic sensibility and depth of character. Throw in Gary Oldman as the villain, Shen--a role perfect for Oldman's often over-the-top style--plus smaller appearances by Victor Garber, Dennis Haysbert, Danny McBride, Michelle Yeoh, and even Jean-Claude Van Damme* and you have a cast of voices that made me rejoice to hear it. Yes, there are a lot of famous names in there, but they all worked really well in their roles.

Plus, there was a lot of range to the script. It had me laughing at some points and actually got me a little choked up at others. I mean, who knows, I have become a bit of a crybaby in the past few years, but there was an honesty to some of the character interactions that I just found touching.

I'd put this as the first must-see family movie of the season, whether or not you have kids. And if you haven't seen the first one, throw it on your Netflix queue, because it's also well worth seeing.

--

* And, by the way, if you haven't seen Van Damme's 2008 film JCVD, I highly recommend it.


Viewed: 5/30/2011 | Released: 5/29/2011 | Score: A

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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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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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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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