Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The blockbusters: Wolverine, Star Trek and Angels & Demons review

Posted by lea at 1:12 PM 2 comments Links to this post
It occurs to me that I haven't done a movie review in quite some time, so I thought I'd compare the latest three blockbusters I've seen at the cinemas.

First off, Wolverine. I was already prepared to like it because, let's face it, it's Hugh Jackman in tight leather with those awesome claws - what's not to like? And like it I did. It hit all the right notes with the right amount of action, drama, tension and hero shots of Jackman, as well as sibling rivalry and tragic romance thrown in. The storyline was only a tad formulaic.

Then along came Star Trek, and totally blew Wolverine into outer space (hence the sketchy review - I can barely remember any movie before Star Trek now). I'm not a trekkie and I'm not even a big sci-fi fan, but this movie had me at hello and didn't let me go until the final credits rolled. It's a great big ball of fun that somehow keeps the corniness at just the right level so you can enjoy the humour and melodrama without rolling your eyes - not many American blockbusters do that this well. Similar to Wolverine, Star Trek is an origin-story that tells how a snotty-brilliant-rebellious youth becomes the famous Captain Kirk, with a parallel story of how Spock becomes Spock - actually, Spock was always the very steady Spock so it's not a huge Spock-revelation, just a chance to enjoy Sylar's performance.

Then on one bored evening, I accompanied some friends to see Angels and Demons. I think the low expectations helped. It didn't totally suck, but with this much choice in the cinemas, why bother.

So there you have it: Star Trek is a must, Wolverine is a good waste of 2.5 hours, and Angels and Demons only if you're a Dan Brown or Tom Hanks fan. Or Ewan MacGregor, although there's not much to perve at since he's always in the priestly robe-thing.

On a side note, I have to mention how good it is to see broader ethnicity in these blockbusters. Black people have really stepped up into lead roles in the past decade (thank Denzel Washington), but Wolverine also has a half-Korean Agent Zero (whose hotness rating, according to some, is anything but zero) and Star Trek is full of them - African-American, Asian, Russian, Scottish, and even green people - it's off the planet! Literally! It's great to see so keep it going, Hollywood (yes I know you keep your eye on my blog with breathless anticipation).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Posted by lea at 12:40 PM 0 comments Links to this post
One has to wonder how Neil Gaiman's books can be classified in the children's category. There's always something macabre - a threatening dark shadow - that lurks on the edges of every page. Yet it's also so very compelling and imaginative that, like Roald Dahl, it would be a pity for his books to be confined for kids' enjoyment alone.

The Graveyard Book begins with a murder - in fact three murders, which should have been four. 'The man Jack' has stealthily entered the house of a sleeping family and murdered the parents and a child, but the baby of the family, a lone boy, has toddled off and disappeared, making the murder incomplete. Somehow he enters the one place that Jack can't find him - the local graveyard - where he is sheltered and raised by its ghostly inhabitants. Adopted by a ghost couple, he is called Nobody Owens (Bod for short). Creepy? You betcha. But does it work? Boy does it.

The ghosts are depicted as normal people whose time in the real world had ended, but their lives have not. There are nice ghosts and nasty ones, friendly ones and stuck up ones and boring ones. And of course, there's Silas. Bod's guardian - a shadow who moves between the real world and the ghostly one - who oversees his education and protects him from the malevolent evil that murdered his family and is now out to find him too. Only in the graveyard can Bod remain safe.

The Graveyard Book is a truly imaginative tale of a young boy who grows up learning his boundaries, making mistakes, mastering his lessons and is ultimately set loose to discover the world. The wonderful in-between-death-and-life world that Gaiman conjures up is an interesting (and rather creepy) parallel to the real world and the hurdles children face as they grow up. Its slightly dark nature is actually quite realistic, as I don't remember my childhood being all fairy floss and fun, as many other kids' books would have you believe. Neither did I grow up in a graveyard, but Neil Gaiman's masterful storytelling makes The Graveyard Book a very enjoyable read.

Comfort to the Enemy, Elmore Leonard

Posted by lea at 12:23 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Comfort to the Enemy is not your usual Elmore Leonard novel. Sure there are gangsters and good guys, but this slim volume takes you back to the 40s, the days of shoot-outs between gangs and sheriffs in the American mid-west.

The hero is US Marshall Carl Webster, whom we first meet as a hot shot youngster with a cool hand and precision barrel-sight. The first few chapters are disjointed stories from differing viewpoints, threaded by the appearance of Carl in his official capacity. The second half of the book becomes a novella set during the holocaust of World War II, when Carl is a little older and wiser, and by this point is married to Louly - a character from an earlier chapter. We don't really get to hear how this relationship developed, but one senses it may be the plot of another book. It probably already is, but I just haven't read it yet.

As a book, the structure of Comfort to the Enemy is somewhat confusing, especially for those who aren't aware that Carl has featured in Elmore Leonard's books before, and that this is actually patched up bits of fiction extracted from his preious works. However, it still manages to be a good read because of Leonard's ability to get the reader right into the world of his characters. His dialogue is always cracking and his narrative never heavy-handed. It's as though the action takes you straight through to the end - you never see the puppet strings.

Verdict: Great for a cold winter's day when you just want to rug up and lose yourself in another world, but not quite as fun as his other works.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

Posted by lea at 9:59 PM 2 comments Links to this post
'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains' begins Seth Grahame-Smith's version of Pride and Prejudice, with one key added ingredient: a proliferation of zombies in England. In this version, the Sisters Bennett are Shaolin-trained warriors engaged in her Majesty's service to protect the good people of Hertfordshire (until a suitable marriage offer, of course) and hordes of 'unmentionables' abound, whose sole aim is to gorge on the fresh brains of the living.

The first two, maybe three chapters are truly enjoyable, then the novelty factor wears off and the laughs become fewer and further between. Fans of P&P, like myself, will enjoy Grahame-Smith's almost seamless Austenese insertions of battle scenes and innuendo (the latter less successful, such as the double entendre on 'balls'), but towards the end P&P&Z becomes boring for its too-accurate following of the original plot. We already know what's going to happen - in many cases, we know it word for word already. The plot deviations are refreshing - like in Lost in Austen - as long as you don't deviate too far so as to render the characters unrecognisable. It's a fine line to tread, but a more sure-footed excursis of the original novel would have been well-received.

The inventive bits are great - Lady Catherine's ninjas, the dojo in every truly accomplished young woman's home, Elizabeth throwing Mr Darcy into the mantelpiece while rejecting his proposal - but nothing can save the plot from becoming a big yawn in the end - not even our zombie warrior heroine and her Katana. In fact, in Lydia and Wickham's case, the plot becomes totally lame. But Grahame-Smith has chosen his audience well - Austenites will flock to the book by sheer curiosity alone (this reviewer being a case in point) and he'll definitely make a crapload of money, so I guess its mission has already been accomplished.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Easy Virtue, Noel Coward

Posted by lea at 2:05 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Easy Virtue is an enjoyable play with more than one layer. On the surface, the story of a brazen, older woman-of-the-world marrying the eldest son of a genteel country family and being thrust into their world is a plot ripe with explosive possibilities. On another level, Coward uses the plot to unveil the snobby culture of the English upper crust. This theme is well-worn now, but in Coward's day I can imagine that his depiction of the snobby Mrs Whittaker and her daughters - self-righteous Marion and naiive and vindictive Hilda - would have been quite a rude look in the mirror for the starched English audience.

The 2008 movie explores the first layer well, creating rich comic moments exaggerated by the fact that the temptress is American, rather than Coward's original English socialite. The chemistry between Jessica Biel's carefree brazen American intruder and stern-faced matriarch Kristin Scott-Thomas rescues the movie from descending into farce, even though the comedy turns slapstick at times.

It's a shame that Coward doesn't explore this further, as this entire period seems to fall into the crevice of the three months that pass between Act I and Act II. However it's in the second layer that Coward's dialogue really shines, managing to depict the adulterous and laconic father (the Colonel) as the most genuine and sympathetic member of the family. The two most morally corrupt characters in the play (Larita and the Colonel) in fact become Coward's heroes for their lack of hypocrisy and largeness of mind, which Larita in particular shows at the end in relinquishing what is most dear to her.

Re-reading this review so far, I notice that I haven't even mentioned the son John, whom Larita falls in love with and marries. I think that's actually part of Coward's design - John is practically an absent character known more to the audience from being spoken of than for his own presence, but he's an important character because it's through his very absence that Coward poignantly shows the damaging effect of pressure and disappointed expectation on young love.

Easy Virtue in both its forms is very enjoyable, but the ending of the movie, which diverges a little from the play, is rather perplexing. Overall a good read and enjoyable watch.

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