May 24, 2013

Book Reviews @ The Temple

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – I am of two minds about this book. Real quick: it’s 50ish years in the future, a VR version of WoW/Eve/the matrix dominates entertainment. The guy who made it is a child of the 80s, dies, and leaves the entirety of the game/company to the first person to solve a game inside his game. The book is hand crafted for nerds who grew up in the 80s, like me, with no end of references to our favorite things. On the one hand, I love this book. The basic story is great, the world is awesome. I listened to almost nothing else until I got through it, it was a page turner, if that makes any sense for an audiobook. On the other hand, two things really really annoy me about the book. First, it’s about a teenager, with obnoxious teenager problems. I can’t say that it’s poorly written, it’s a perfectly accurate representation of a nerdy 18 year old (I should know). But nerdy 18 year olds, 18 year olds of all breeds in fact, are annoying. They say annoying things, do annoying things, and prioritize particularly poorly. This is all portrayed very accurately (and acted perfectly by Wil Wheaton), but at the end of the day it’s still annoying. It’s hard to get into a book when the main character is annoying and doesn’t make very smart choices. Secondly, the book is essentially a 16 hour hipster diatribe. It’s great to glorify the 80s, for those of us from then. Monty Python, old computer games, Wargames, D&D, all that stuff, great. But the book really goes out of its way to dig up the most obscure stuff it can find. And all the experts are mega annoying about knowing all the old cool shit and if you don’t know it you are totally lame. Again, expertly written as people like that really are. But still annoying. It’s a funny pair of criticisms – he’s very good at writing obnoxious people. But it definitely made some parts of the book hard to get through. But, I can’t deny how quickly I read it, how excited I was to hear what happened next. In the end, it was a great story and I had a great time.

Stalking the Nightmare by Harlan Ellison – This is a book of short stories by one of the most prolific scifi writers that I’ve never read. It’s very good, with lots of good ideas in it. Ellison is perhaps the most cantankerous misanthropic scifi writer I’ve ever read. This is at times endearing, but mostly annoying. I generally dislike misanthropes, they have to try way too hard to be above, below, or beyond your crap. They are basically angry hipsters. But the two notable exceptions are Carlin and Spider Jerusalem. Putting those two together is pretty weird, but they are examples of an archetype. Ellison is kind of the same, less likeable, but with some awesome ideas. Stephen King does an intro for the book where, I guess, he is trying to channel Ellison. It is among the worst things I’ve ever read: obnoxious, gratuitous and pointless. It almost prevented me from reading the book, but I’m glad it didn’t. I really enjoyed the variety in the book (scifi, fantasy, real life anecdotes and stories that don’t fit in any of those). I want to read something else by him to see if he’s someone I should investigate more.

Event Reviews @ The Temple

Fela – This is a musical about a musician from Nigeria who was apparently big news in the 70s and 80s. He fused a lot of kinds of music – jazz, african, funk – to create “afrobeat”. He was also very political in Nigeria and that earned him a whole bunch of trouble. The musical is set as if it’s the final performance in his club, the Shrine, where he kind of tells the history of the music, his political struggles, and his relationship with his mother. The music is fantastic, you can’t help but love it. The musical is pretty well layed out. Everything is done with african accents, which is troublesome for my american ears. I understood probably 75% of what he said in the first half (it’s really a one man show, acting wise, everyone else sings or dances or plays music), which was enough to get by. The second half was harder and I really lost most of the story. But I got the gist, I guess, and it was enough to be very enjoyable.

Lila Downs – So I guess this lady is pretty famous, in the right circles. I’d never heard of her, but she was great. I peg her as a mariachi singer, though the musical background isn’t particularly mariachi-ish. But that could just be me being unfamiliar with other types of mexican singing. Her voice is fantastic. It’s breathy and “smokey”, which is not something I usually like on female singers, but with this kind of music it fits really well. She has a pretty good range, she can sing very low very well. She tries to go high, but I found that really bad. Not only did she wobble on some notes, it just didn’t sound good. Technically she got most of it, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But that’s really the only negative thing. The 5 piece band (guitar, bass, drums, trombone, sax, and occasionally accordions) were all great. It was a lot of fun, really glad we went.

Tony Bennett – Maaaaan, Tony got old. This is the second time I’ve seen him, my oh-so-trustworthy memory tells me that it was much better last time. I still love him, and I still love the music, but he just can’t sing anymore. He can get through short notes fine, and his voice is still iconic, but every single (every single) long note ended badly. Either off-key, a warble, a fade-out, whatever. Really kind of a bummer, because he’s such a likeable guy and the music is so good. He still made it fun, he talk/sings, which was always part of his style anyway, to get around actual singing, I think. But in a completely non-objective way, laying on the grass, staring at the sky and listening to Tony, even old not-so-good Tony, is a fine way to spend a couple hours.

Movie Reviews @ The Temple

Beasts of the Southern Wild – This movie is pretty special, for a number of reasons. First of all, the idea that everyone in this movie is an amateur is astonishing. I did not imagine for a single moment that the actors in this movie were first timers. A few movies have tried this – Act of Valor comes to mind as a particularly bad example – and it’s often not a good idea. But these people were amazing. The girl, everyone knows now has received a lot of recognition. The father too, though, is amazing. Toeing the fine line between ignorant, drunk, basically abusive father and passionate, devoted father is so well done. The movie is made well too, and I guess from a first time director, it’s quite pretty to look at. It does fail (technically) in one regard, this thing with the aurochs. They claim in the extras that they didn’t want to have digital aurochs because there’s no computers in this world. I don’t know if that’s true, or if computer effects are just expensive, but in either case their solution doesn’t work. The aurochs are obviously pigs with fur coats and hats on, and their insertion into scenes with humans is pretty bad and distracting. Their place in the movie is a bit odd, I’m tempted to say they aren’t necessary. Mostly because to me this movie is about people living on the wrong side of the levees in Louisiana, but of course, to them it’s not the wrong side. What is amazing to me about this movie is that it showed me, more clearly than I imagined possible, the mind of people living that life. We hear about people in situations like that: too stubborn to leave their homes, too ignorant to know their lives could be better, unable to see that things could be any other way. And all of that is true. But this movie allowed me to, very briefly and shallowly, put myself in their context. The father just wants his daughter to be strong enough to survive. It does not occur to him that she could survive by going somewhere else. So he teaches her to be tough through means that are the very definition of emotional, and occasionally physical, abuse. You don’t leave though, because that’s your home, and no person, or storm, or disease can change that. That is tragic, and beautiful, but so sad. It doesn’t excuse anything, if you hit your kid or are permanently drunk, you are bad at your one job, and you don’t deserve to have it. But if I’d never seen anything else, I’m sure I’d act the same way, sad as that makes me. So I want to say the aurochs are not necessary to tell that story. I guess the author sees them as a destructive force, symbolic of the changes that will destroy our lives, the way we thought they should be. Though I may be wrong, I also saw them as analogs to us. The aurochs were supposedly creatures that ruled the earth, but were overcome by the ice age. I kind of see them as people, fighting against the dying of the light, so to speak. Too strong and stubborn and stupid to give up as their world is taken from them. Maybe that’s not what they meant, but it’s part of what I saw, and it was pretty powerful for me.

Iron Man 3 – This movie is very funny, but it’s not much of a superhero movie. On the plus side, it’s actually hilarious. I laughed more in this than I do in a lot of comedies. The snarkiness of Tony Stark, the robot butler, Happy, they are all pretty good. On the flip side, the iron man parts aren’t that interesting. There’s not a lot of them, to start with. The people who like this movie seem to see that as a bonus, but I could do with more iron man in my iron man movie. The general layout of things is okay, but the movie is just really really dumb in parts. The Mandarin – dumb, Tony’s primary obstacle – dumb, the stuff with Pepper at the end – dumb, Tony’s final choices – dumb. Some of it just plot holes, some of it pretty eye-rolley. So, the movie is okay, if you really really don’t pay attention to anything and just go in for the laughs, it’s good enough.

The Campaign – Pretty funny. Nothing different than what you saw in the previews, probably the funniest parts are in the previews. By no means the funniest movie in any recent amount of time. But if you want to see some jackassery from Farrell & Galifanakis, you’ll certainly get it and it’ll be funny.

Wreck-It Ralph – So good! Borderline awesome. The intellectual part of my brain recognizes that this is fundamentally a standard animated movie. Same old humor, same old goals, villains, heroes, challenges, ups and downs. But the rest of my brain, the part that loves everything about this movie, that part had a good time. This is not a movie that was cynically shat out by people who have never played a video game who want money from people who did or do. The makers clearly have a love for that stuff, and they share that, and it’s awesome.

Django Unchained – Pretty good. Pretty much exactly what you think it is. Some pretty violent violence, though not as bad as he’s done before. As per usual, the dialogue is really the star of the show. Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino were made for each other. I love the crap that he writes down, and I love the way that he says it. It’s what made Inglorious Basterds great, and it’s what makes this movie great. Everyone else does a fine job, both Jamie Fox and even moreso Leonardo Dicaprio are great, but nothing is as good as when Waltz is putting on a show. Tarantino does stick to his tropes and it is pretty over bearing at times. The spaghetti western, hero standing in the doorway, triumphant music crap is too heavy handed for me. Plus the damn thing is quite a bit too long. But it’s still pretty good.

Man With the Iron Fists – Take equal parts Kill Bill (with even more kung fu trappings), mortal kombat, dynasty warriors, and ____, with very bad writing, average directing, but good choreography, and you have this movie. I understand the movie is trying to emulate some of the kung fu tropes, but the dialogue is pretty awful. The general structure is completely as you expect, but nothing wrong with that, it’s really the words that kill it. The only one who really pulls off his part is Russell Crowe, he had decent lines. The rest weren’t great actors, and weren’t given much to go on. But I didn’t come to the movie for the dialogue, I came for the punching, and that is good. RZA tries to get fancy too often with his directing and ruins it (all those split screens, and some really really clumsy zoomins/slowmos of some action). But most of the time it’s fun, with some cool weapons/powers and a bunch of blood. Can’t argue too much with that.

We Bought A Zoo – This movie is actually nice. It’s nothing unusual, nothing fancy. A man has lost his wife, and his kids have lost their mom. They are lost, and so arrives the macguffin – buy a zoo! That part’s a bit hard for me, since I don’t like zoos. I  can’t really be charmed by all these animals in cages. No need to jump into that argument, but it does remove what is perhaps supposed to be the cute hook for this movie. But still, the movie does what it wants to do, and tells a fairly honest story.

ParaNorman – Cute animated movie. Better than Frankenweenie, I think, but that’s largely due to the fact that Tim Burton is doing his burtoney thing so dang often. It’s fun, it’s charming, it’s nothing better than any other animated movie, but that’s still entertaining.

Hotel Transylvania – Same thing as the last one, fun, funny, cute, that’s it. Except for the part where someone can be standing in a shadow and staring at the light source that is creating the shadow. Really annoyed by that. But the rest of it is fine.

Dredd – Meh. People seemed to like this, and be surprised that they did. I didn’t really, and am not surprised. They bust into a building and fight their way to the top.  Like The Raid, except without the insanely cool hand-to-hand fighting. Instead it has super violent slow-mo bullet-drive action. That stuff is decent, not badly done, but not super compelling either.

Premium Rush – Also meh. Didn’t seem like a movie about a bike messenger could be that good. Spoiler alert – it’s not. It’s not exactly bad, no one screws up. It’s just a random “uh crap I’m stuck in this crazy situation with murderers through no fault of my own. Also, I’m on a bike” It tries to romanticize the bike messenger culture, which is mostly obnoxious. And the “biker vision” thing, while a worthy concept, doesn’t work out. But bike messengers are so up their own butt about their little subculture, they probably think it’s great, so maybe it’s just for them.

Cosmopolis – Super meh. It’s kind of an interesting concept, but it’s not an interesting movie. It mostly jumps between boring, surreal, and non-sensical. Some cool moments, and probably a fan of the movie would tell me it’s supposed to be all those things. But for me, it’s just not that good.

End of Watch – This one is good. On the face of it, it’s just another cop movie. It’s trying to connect somehow the modern world – social media, youtube – and the found footage type movie (not the mystery or anything, just the “raw” footage), which isn’t super necessary to anything. But it feels very real. Some very flawed men who do have a vision for their lives. But not so flawed that they are pointless like so many “bad cop” movies. And it doesn’t really beat you over the head with it. Just a well done movie, in the end.

Carriers – Not sure how this got to the top of the queue. It’s a movie from a few years ago about people getting along in a post-pandemic type world. I can’t say that there’s anything particularly bad about it. Acting is fine, dialogue is fine. But it also didn’t really add much to the genre, so it ended up kind of boring.