The Way of the Word

29. July 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

USA 2011. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde. Runtime 118 minutes

A lone cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up a long way from home (or anywhere, for that matter). He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be there. Which isn’t even the most bizarre thing he discovers; that would be the strange bracelet he wears on his left wrist. He eventually finds his way to the town Absolution, where at least some people seem to know them: the mysterious Elle (Olivia Wilde) and the local Sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Actually, it’s from Taggart that the cowboy finds out who he is: Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Just as Taggart is about to ship Jake off to the judge in Santa Fe, they get a visit from Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rancher who rules the town with the proverbial iron fist. Dolarhyde wants not just his son back (who shares the prison coach with Jake), he also wants Jake because Jake stole his gold.
At this point, Absolution is attacked by UFOs who abduct a considerable part of the town’s populace. Those left behind form a posse to chase the UFOs and rescue their loved ones. Along the way, they encounter a gang of outlaws that Jake used to lead, and an Apache tribe that also has missing family. Together, they take the fight to the aliens, who turn out to be just an advance party that is here to check if the planet is suitable for looting and exterminating.

With cross-genre stories like this one, one of the main questions is which one it resembles more closely. In this case, Cowboys and Aliens is more the archetypical western movie with aliens tacked on. It’s a movie about hard men riding lonesome trails — which describes the movie’s feel. Not to disparage Craig and Ford, but both of them channel Clint Eastwood (at different points in his career) for their respective parts. And Olivia Wilde isn’t really as mysterious as she is supposed to be — at least in part, for me, because I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the baggy pajamas she wears in half the movie. Terribly distracting, and not in a good way. On the plus side, they do manage to make it feel like a classic western, even if they go overboard on the western tropes.

And that is where Cowboys and Aliens fails: the tropes. The characters in this movie are mostly stock characters. Their adventure is a mix and mash of various western tropes, played straight. (When I did something similar in my own cross-genre novel Cowboys and Barbarians, I also stuffed it with tropes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way.) There are some bizarre elements put into the second act, but those seem to be added for their own sake instead of leading anywhere. In total, the movie feels overstuffed, in places it appears as if the writers wanted to use the awe-factor to distract from the movie’s flaws. Less awe-factor, here as everywhere it is applied, would have been more.
The aliens are familiar. If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens. The main difference is that (by necessity) they aren’t as invincible as those from Independence Day, Battle LA or Skyline. (I even entertained myself with the notion that all the three above and this movie all tell the story of the same alien invasion — they are all that similar.)
That means that any character who isn’t Jake Lonergan gets short shrift. When Dolarhyde bonds with the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), it doesn’t work, because it’s really just a sidenote. The writers put some (metaphorical) loaded guns on the fireplace but don’t fire them (perhaps in earlier drafts of the screenplay?). Some character growth feels false because it doesn’t really develop naturally. And the showdown would have worked better if there had been more consistency — the aliens are bulletproof or not, depending on whether or not the writers want to kill the cowboy in question.

In summary: Cowboys and Aliens is an entertaining western with some sci-fi elements. You won’t leave the movie feeling that you’ve wasted your time. But you will leave the movie feeling that it could have been much much more. And by borrowing heavily from both other western and sci-fi movies, you never lose the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

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20. July 2011

Review: Captain America, the First Avenger

USA 2011. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper. Runtime: 125 minutes

In the first days of America’s involvement in WW2, frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately tries and fails to join the army. He is simply not fit enough. At one attempt, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a super-soldier program for the US government. Erskine considers Steve the perfect candidate and recruits him. The experiment is a success and turns the skinny little dude into a perfect specimen. Unfortunately, he will remain the only one, because Erskine is killed by a Hydra assassin.

As the only possible result of this experiment, Steve is considered too valuable to be sent to the front. Instead, he tours the country in order to drum up support for the war effort. But when Steve tours the front and discovers that his best friend Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) unit has been captured by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he goes off by himself and frees them. His success earns him a series of field assignments that cover the entire war.

During this time, Schmidt, whose nickname is Red Skull because of a deformity he got as a result of his participation in Erskine’s prototype experiment, has built Hydra into a fighting force, mostly because he managed to get his hands on a superweapon called The Tesseract. In the final days of the war, the Red Skull decides to eradicate the US. As his plane takes off, only Captain America can get on board to stop the Red Skull’s plan.

Captain America is a dramatic, movie, it’s an adventurous movie, Americans might even consider it a patriotic movie.  But at the heart of it, it is not an American movie. As in, you don’t need to be American to like the movie or the characters. Yes, Captain America dresses like the US flag, but the values he represents go beyond the US, and therefore the character can resonate with audiences all over the world. There is no patriotic flag-waving in this movie. And yes, that is a plus. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about people.

It is, of course, the story of Steve Rogers, who is willing to selflessly lay his life on the line for what he thinks is right and important. Be that standing up against bullies of all kinds and sizes, or just risking everything to save his friend. All the while remaining clueless about some other things, such as Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Chris Evans rises to the occasion, presenting a more nuanced and mature performace than I thought him capable of. It is as if here, for the first time, he was actually challenged to play against type, and he is up to the task.

It is, surprisingly, the story of Abraham Erskine, a German scientist in US exile, who also wants to do the right thing. Stanley Tucci puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the short time he has, he infuses Erskine with so much humanity and makes the character so very likable that you are honestly sad when he is assassinated.

It is, to a lesser extent, the story of the Red Skull, whose job is to be two-dimensionally evil and give Captain America something to fight. Hugo Weaving is a very good actor, but he is overqualified for this role, which doesn’t require much more than chewing scenery.

And on the fringes, it is the story of the Howling Commandos, an elite fighting unit; of Bucky Barnes; and of Tommy Lee Jones as Nick Fury in everything but name (since the character of that name is played by Sam Jackson). Dominic Cooper puts in a very fun performance as Howard Stark, so much so that I’d want him to take over as Tony Stark when Robert Downey’s contract expires.

The story itself is very simple, almost simplistic, but it makes up for that in adventure, fun and excitement. It works even better for comic fans, because they are likely to catch most (if not all) of the Easter Eggs, such as the cameo of the original Human Torch, and Matt Salinger’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo. (In the observation booth during Steve Rogers’s transformation.)

The special effects work fabulously. The most amazing one being skinny Steve Rogers, who is played by Chris Evans with the help of invisible (= not noticeable) CGI. The film is in 3D of course, but except for one moment (when Cap throws his shield at the audience), the 3D is (as usual) rather superfluous.

The downside: not enough Nazis. While the Red Skull starts out as a Nazi scientist, he disowns the Third Reich during his third appearance, after which it is all about Hydra. Apparently, Nazis aren’t evil enough anymore for a WW2 movie. While the logic behind this is obvious (Nazis might adversely affect merchandising sales, which must be avoided at all cost), it leaves a very sour taste.

All in all, however, Captain America is a very entertaining (although not very deep) movie. Joe Johnston is a hit-or-miss director, having delivered gems like Rocketeer and bombs like Jurassic Park III. Here, he is in Rocketeer mode.

Verdict: very recommended.

21. June 2011

Review: Green Lantern

USA 2011. Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively. Runtime: 105 Minutes

After being freed from his prison, the entity known as Parallax strikes against the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Abin Sur escapes, severely wounded, to Earth, where his power ring picks test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) as Abin Sur’s successor. After a brief stint on the Lantern HQ planet Oa for training, Hal decides that he isn’t cut out to be a member of the Green Lantern Corps and returns to Earth.

Meanwhile, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is infected with a particle of Parallax energy and begins to metamorphose into a superbeing with incredible mental powers. Which he promptly uses to get back and people who he believes wronged him – such as his father (Tim Robbins). As Hal takes on Hector, Parallax notices the fight and decides that Earth will make a nice snack before attacking Oa. Hal takes off to Oa to ask for the Corps’s help, but since the Corps just got their butts kicked by Parallax, they are too afraid to commit. So Hal has to fight Parallax by himself.

I’ll readily admit that after the reviews I’ve seen, I went into Green Lantern thinking, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” Perhaps because of my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

That doesn’t mean the movie has no problems. It has plenty of them. It also has a charm, however, that makes up for several of those problems.

The main problem is that it’s too ambitious. Green Lantern is three very good superhero movies compressed into one: Hal coming into his own as a Green Lantern, Hal fighting Hector Hammond, Hal fighting Parallax. If the creators had focused on one of these story arcs, they could have made one hell of a movie. Perhaps the one thing that almost made me cry was seeing the glimmer of Hector Hammond’s potential being unfulfilled. The way Sarsgaard played the character hinted at the tragic and almost sympathetic villain character that could have been if the movie had given the character enough time to be developed. The training arc on Oa was a GL reader’s proverbial wet dream, or would have been if it hadn’t been so short. The menace of Parallax would have been far more threatening if the monster had been on the screen for more than the (felt) ten minutes of screentime that it had.

In that regard, Green Lantern is the poster boy for missed opportunities. The poster boy for “less is more.” Less would have provided the chance to focus and develop aspects of the story and the mythology.

That doesn’t mean that Green Lantern is a hopeless case. Sure, some things don’t make sense, and I hope that there will be a director’s cut with deleted scenes that will fix that. Some other things make no real-world sense, but they make superhero-logic sense, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for that.

But the cast is charming, Sarsgaard is having fun, and the visuals…

… are spectacular. The visuals are what really sells this movie. Alien vistas, the entire Green Lantern corps in incredible detail. The energy constructs are cool and sometimes funny.

And Green Lantern is the first 3D movie that I’ve seen where the 3D actually works and enhances the film. (Well, except maybe for Tron: Legacy.)

So… what’s the verdict? Green Lantern fails completely in aspects of story and writing. The actors fight valiantly against a script that doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their characters. But the visuals are cosmically spectacular, as they should be, and the entire film has something of a retro charm that in some places reminded me of those old Richard Donner Superman movies. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but I can easily see how, if my mood hadn’t been as fine as it was, the faults might have glared more at me.  It’s the proverbial popcorn movie. Therefore, I can’t in good conscience give anything but

Verdict: neutral.

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

11. March 2011

Review: Source Code

USA 2011. Directed by Duncan Jones. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright. Runtime: 96 minutes

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a Chicago commuter train. He has no idea who the pretty woman, Christine (Michelle Monaghan) in front of him is, but she knows him. When he goes to the washroom, the face in the mirror isn’t his own. Before he can even begin to figure out what has happened to him, the train he’s on explodes, and everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, except for Colter, who wakes up in a strange-looking contraption. He is told that he works for Beleaguered Castle, a section of the US military that works with a program called Source Code. Source Code allows to send a person back into the head of another person eight minutes before that person’s death. The same terrorist who bombed the train threatened to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of Chicago in six hours. Colter’s assignment is to identify the terrorist, so that he can be apprehended and the greater disaster can be averted. Colter’s only contact to the real world are Sgt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), his handler, and the inventor of the Source Code (Jeffrey Wright), whose drive to prove himself is so great that he is willing to send Colter through hell for it. Again and again and again.

And even though everyone tells Colter that he can’t change the past, Colter is determined to try.

At first glance, Source Code looks like a mix of Quantum Leap (time traveler with swiss-cheese-memory wakes up in a stranger’s body) and 7 Days (time traveler is sent by secret government agency to prevent a catastrophe), with a dash of Déjà Vu and some video game logic. A closer look reveals that Source Code is very much its own thing. The story unfolds mostly from Colter Stevens’s point of view, and the audience discovers the twists and turns (and there are many) almost as he does.

Source Code has plenty of action and explosions. Okay, so there’s only one explosion, which repeats over and over again. And even though Colter races a ticking clock (6 hours until the nuke goes up), the audience doesn’t really feel that ticking clock, because Colter’s journey is like a level in a video game – you get killed once, you restart the level, and knowing what you did wrong the last time helps you through the next try.

All of this would make for a very dull, shallow and pointless action movie. It’s a good thing then that Source Code isn’t that. Rather, the movie focuses on the characters.

On Colter’s feelings as he discovers what he is supposed to do, his frustration at being unable to save the people or even of talking to his father.

On Goodwin’s feelings as she begins to develop sympathy for Colter’s plight. Goodwin’s character shows the most development in the movie: she starts out as someone who might be a computer simulation, to the one who proves to have the most heart, the one who takes the greatest risk to do the right thing. For me, Goodwin was the movie’s main character.

On the project’s inventor’s almost monomanic ambition to see this through and prove himself, at any cost (to Colter). He’s the kind of person who you wouldn’t want to succeed, the one who you’d want to fail if that didn’t mean millions of people would die.

These three characters drive the movie, their journeys make the movie. They make Source Code an action movie with heart, where you don’t look for one-liners, but you feel for and with the characters.

The only one who doesn’t get to shine is Michelle Monaghan as Christine. That isn’t her fault, she does the best the script allows her to do, but that isn’t much: she suffers from being a romantic interest for the hero, whose existence is limited to eight repetitive minutes.

I’m afraid I can’t really say more about it, because it’s almost impossible to say more without spoilers. So suffice it to say that if you liked Inception, you’re likely to like Source Code: it is as clever as the much more expensive movie, but with much more heart.

With Source Code, Duncan Jones shows that Moon was not a fluke: he’s a director with brains and heart. Just like this movie.

Verdict: very recommended

4. February 2011

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

USA 2011. Written & directed by George Nolfi. Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp. Runtime: ca. 90 minutes. Loosely based on the short story The Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick.

Just as David Norris (Matt Damon) has lost his run for the US Senate, he meets the mysterious Elise (Emily Blunt). It’s love at first sight, but she has to run and he has no idea who she is. But her inspiration keeps David in politics. A few months later, he meets her again, randomly, on the bus, and this time he gets her phone number. The problem is that David was supposed to miss that bus, he had only caught it because Harry (Anthony Mackie), the Adjustment Agent assigned to his case, made a mistake. Because of that, David arrives sooner at his office than expected, and catches the Adjustment Bureau in the act of, well, making adjustments. They snatch him and take him to a secret, undisclosed location where they tell him everything: they are agents of Fate, they are supposed to make sure that everything goes according to the Chairman’s plan, if he ever tells anyone about this he will be lobotomized, oh, and by the way, he is not supposed to see Elise again, ever. Three years later, he does. And despite everything the Adjustment Bureau does, David manages to stay close to the woman he loves. But it violates The Plan, so the Adjustment Bureau sends Agent Thompson (Terence Stamp), who always gets results. Thompson reveals to David that both he and Elise have wonderful futures ahead of them. But only if they stay apart. David would be willing to sacrifice his own future for love — but can he sacrifice Elise’s? Or can the Plan be changed?

Every now and then, there comes a movie that is difficult to define. The Adjustment Bureau is such a movie. At the heart of it, it’s a romance. With fanastical/fantasy elements. And thrilling. Plus, it offers food for thought. The central questions at the heart of The Adjustment Bureau are the eternal problems of free will vs. fate (Terence Stamp’s character has an almost chilling speech about that), and how far can you/should you go for love.

The movie examines these questions in a dramatic and exciting way, of course; it is a movie after all.

The Adjustment Bureau is perfectly cast. As the movie progresses, Matt Damon seems to grow into his character, just as David Norris’s character grows during the four years the movie spans. And since a romance stands and falls with the chemistry between the male and female lead, let it be said that the chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt is incredible. You do not doubt for a single moment that these two people really do fall head over heels for one another the moment they meet, or that David would really obsess over Elise for years.

The story’s real hero, however, would be Anthony Mackie’s Harry: the angel (“We’ve been called that.”) who goes against procedure and risks everything because his conscience tells him that what’s happening is wrong. Harry is the one who has the most to lose by doing what he thinks is right, and he does it anyway.

And regarding Harry’s supervisor, Richardson (John Slattery), if you don’t think, halfway through the movie, that it would be fun to see this story from Richardson’s point of view (someone who just wants to do his job, but there’s this guy who keeps throwing wrenches in the system), then you need to have your sense of humor adjusted.

The Adjustment Movie is the perfect date movie: it has romance for the ladies, enough action for the gents, and since it actually leaves you thinking, you have something to talk about after the movie. In the press materials, Damon calls it a popcorn movie. Considering what the term has come to mean in the last decade or so, I think that it does The Adjustment Bureau an injustice to all it that. The Adjustment Bureau is intelligent entertainment.

Verdict: very recommended

11. January 2011

Review: The Green Hornet

USA 2011. Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz. Runtime: 110 minutes

When Britt Reid’s (Seth Rogen) father, newspaper mogul James Reid, dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting, playboy and no-goodnick Britt has to take over. Britt befriends his father’s erstwhile mechanic Kato (Jay Chou), and talks him into joining him in becoming superheroes. Together (well, mostly Kato, with Britt in his new identity as Green Hornet taking credit) they mix up LA’s underworld.  Since they pretend to be criminals, that doesn’t sit well with the city’ actual crime-lord-in-charge, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). The situation escalates into what looks, to outsiders, like a major gang war for the control of Los Angeles’s criminal underworld.

I admit that I went into this movie expecting to totally and completely loathe it. To my surprise, it was better than I had expected. Granted, that’s easy, considering just how bad I had expected it to be. But even by that standard.

That said, I still didn’t like it all that much. Shall we begin the diagnosis?

The good:

Green Hornet is esthetically interesting. Gondry has a distinctive visual style, and his almost-surrealism makes this movie interesting to look at.

The action sequences, mostly car chases and martial arts stuff, are energetic and engaging and work very very well.

Christoph Waltz is not memorable as the bland, boring and not at all scary villain Chudnofsky. Why is that a good thing? Because it’s intentional. It’s what makes the character unique. He’s a crime lord who does not seem scary at all, but he desperately wants to be scary. Chudnofsky is easily the best character in this movie.

And at the end of the film, I realized that the heroes resolved a major dilemma in a way that a hero who has to be heroic never could. I don’t know if Rogen actually thought that through (judging by the rest of the film, I don’t think so), but it’s a chilling reminder of why being disguised as a villain can be effective.

The bad:

Green Hornet would have been a terrific movie if they had played it straight. Unfortunately, they decided to make a comedy, and the jokes mostly don’t work.

At least not for me. Seth Rogen’s stlye of asshole-slacker-humor simply isn’t what I find funny, so most of the supposed jokes were facepalm-stuff for me. I mean, I don’t mind gay jokes and blonde jokes if they’re actually funny, but in this movie neither the gay jokes nor Cameron Diaz were.

Seth Rogen as the writer and the actor playing the role is also to blame for another reason why this movie didn’t work for me: his Britt Reid is an unlikable jerk and bully. His motivation for becoming a superhero? He is bored, and thanks to Kato he can feel like a hero without actually taking much risk. You could call Britt Reid “What if Kick-Ass were Batman?” This Britt Reid is irresponsible, stupid (yes, as in: not particularly intelligent), arrogant, offensive and generally juvenile. I couldn’t see a single redeeming quality in the character. Even at the movie’s end, he hasn’t learned anything from his adventure.

Kato’s motivation for joining Britt “in this adventure” is even more obscure. He’s an engineering savant (yes, I know what the word means, that’s why I use it) who doesn’t even like Britt. So why would he join him?

Regarding Jay Chou, I hope he uses the money he made for this movie to buy a second facial expression.

The ugly:

If you get to choose, see the movie in 3D. It’s a post-converted movie. If that doesn’t say it all already, let me explain some of the problems that this movie has with 3D.

Gondry uses quick music-video-style cuts. When you do that in 3D, the 3D can’t keep up. The eye can’t process the quick changes. I wasn’t affected, fortunately, but I heard several people complain of nausea and headaches after the movie. In addition to the physical problems, the visuals are frequently blurry and out of focus, which (I’m told) is also a problem of the post-conversion process. So if you want to see the movie with a sharp and in-focus picture, without headaches and the risk of spewing your popcorn on the guy in the seat before you (or being spewed on by the guy behind you), choose the 2D version. Luckily, 3D doesn’t really add anything to this movie, so you wouldn’t miss out.

Plus, the 3D glasses get in the way of the facepalm.

In general, what’s the verdict? Frankly, I’m not sure. As I said, the action scenes work, but as a comedy it fails. I suppose that if you like Seth Rogen’s style of comedy, the comedy will work for you, so you will probably enjoy it. Since I don’t like that type of humor, I didn’t. Therefore, since it was a comedy that I didn’t find funny, and since I found the main character irredeemably unlikable, I render the following

Verdict: mildly not recommended

3. November 2010

Review: Megamind

USA 2010. Directed by Tom McGrath. Starring Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill. Runtime: 96 Minutes

The rivalry of Megamind (Will Ferrell), the coolest villain ever to torment Metro City, and his annoying arch-nemesis, the goody-two-shoes Metro Man (Brad Pitt) has lasted since their childhoods. Now Megamind has the perfect plan to defeat Metro Man: he kidnaps Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey) — again — and tricks Metro Man into thinking that they are in the old observatory outside the city. Metro Man walks right into Megamind’s trap, Megamind unleashes his death ray — and succeeds in killing Metro Man.

Unexpectedly.

Now Megamind is King of Metro City, master of all he surveys. And it bores him to tears.  He misses the fights against Metro Man. He misses the challenge.

What’s a supervillain to do?

Why, create a new superhero, of course. Using a sample of Metro Man’s DNA, Megamind creates a process that can bestow Metro Man’s superpowers on an ordinary human. By accident, it’s Roxanne’s cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill) who gets the powers. Megamind trains Jonah to be the hero Megamind wants to fight. As it turns out, however, Hal (now Tighten) is far too selfish, and becomes the world’s greatest villain. Now Megamind is forced to become a hero and save Metro City.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about Megamind. The animation is top-notch, and the in-your-face “look, it’s 3D!” effects aren’t very annoying. (Actually, Megamind is another example for why 3D should be restricted to animated movies. They at least get it right.) The movie is funny, and Megamind’s journey from villain to hero is quite believable. He’s also a lovable kind of villain: throughout the story, he is shown as not evil, just juvenile. If you accept that, the premise of his evolution makes perfect sense. (It also explains the really annoying habit this movie has: Megamind’s minion carries a ghetto blaster and plays a kind of soundtrack for its master. Among others, Highway to Hell and Bad. To which Megamind dances. Like a teenager would.)

Megamind also provides some metatextual commentary on the superhero genre. The title character is an old-school villain. Death rays, giant robots, elaborate traps and schemes. He engages the hero, loses, and is sent to prison, from where he escapes to try again. Part of his character evolution comes when he realizes that Tighten doesn’t play by the old rules.

If you’re familiar with the superhero tropes, Megamind offers nothing original. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s exciting and for once the 3D actually helps the movie instead of just looking silly. The characters are believable, and very very likable. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Minion, for example. (Seriously: if you liked Despicable Me‘s minions, you’ll love Minion and the Brain Bots.) The movie is charming, the production values are first rate. It’s definitely worth your time and money.

It’s just… Don’t go in expecting the next Incredibles. Megamind falls a bit short of that benchmark.

Verdict: recommended

5. September 2010

CLAWS 2 Blog Tour 2010 – Stacey Cochran

Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/CLAWS-2-ebook/dp/B003TU20HE

Hi Jens,

Thanks so much for hosting me on my Blog Tour for CLAWS 2. The new novel is the second in a series that features wildlife biologist Dr. Angie Rippard who gets drawn into police investigations when hikers and campers are attacked in wilderness areas in the American West. The books are available primarily in eBook format, though the first book is available in paperback as well.

Today, I’d like to discuss a couple of marketing tools that I’ve found effective in marketing and promoting these self-published novels.

The Book Trailer

I created a book trailer for the first novel CLAWS that I posted on YouTube. This week, the book trailer will cross one million views (very likely during this visit to your blog). Here is the trailer:

There has been a lot of debate in the blogosphere about whether book trailers actually work in helping to sell books. Most book trailers that I have seen rarely get more than a few hundred views (let alone tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of views).

I have no data that directly links the million views the trailer has received with a single book sold. That said, CLAWS is one of my bestselling books to date, and it’s likely that its sales have come from many marketing efforts in a lot of different locations.

I’ve never seen another book trailer receive a million views, so I’m going out on a limb here in analyzing why this trailer worked so well. My hunch is that it became viral early on and started getting re-posted on 3rd-party blogs. I put a lot of effort into titling the trailer with key words that people would likely be looking for, and people love to comment on it (it has nearly 400 viewer comments).

The Blog Tour

The Blog Tour on the other hand has had a direct impact on sales. Because of the immediacy of Amazon Kindle sales reporting, I can see if a book sells well on a day that I visit a particular blog.

For those unfamiliar with a Blog Tour, it is essentially what you’re reading right this moment. An author prearranges with blog hosts to visit their blogs on specific dates with specific topics. The author sends his/her guest post to the blog host as a Word file, and then the blog host posts the text on the scheduled date.

For the first CLAWS book, I visited blogs for 45 days. For CLAWS 2, I’ve done nearly three months of “touring.”

I generally write up new posts for each blog I’m visiting, so it takes time and organizational skill to stay on top of everything. But aside from that, it costs nothing to do, and it’s fairly effective with helping to spread the word.

Conclusion

Well, thanks so much for letting me visit your blog today, Jens. It means a lot to me and it definitely helps to spread the word. If anyone has questions about book marketing or publicity, I’ll be checking in over the next few days to answer any questions or respond to comments.

Thanks so much, folks.

================================

Stacey Cochran

Stacey Cochran was born in the Carolinas, where his family traces its roots to the mid 1800s. In 1998 he was selected as a finalist in the Dell Magazines undergraduate fiction competition, and he made his first professional short story sale to CutBank in 2001. In 2004, he was selected as a finalist in the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife Dr. Susan K. Miller-Cochran and their son Sam, and he teaches writing at North Carolina State University. His books include The Colorado Sequence, Amber Page, CLAWS, and CLAWS 2.

6. August 2010

Review: Ninja

USA 2009. Directed by Isaac Florentine. Starring Scott Adkins, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Mika Hiji. Runtime 86 minutes

Casey (Scott Adkins) is a Westerner who studies ninjutsu in Japan. When his sensei (Togo Igawa) has reason to fear that his former student Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) plans to steal the mythic Yoroi Bitsu, which contains the equipment of the last ninja, sensei sends Casey and his own daughter Namiko to take the trunk to a safe place in New York. Unfortunately, Masazuka not only finds out about it, he is also connected to a cult-like organisation that has enough manpower to try to steal the trunk. Of course things deteriorate to a point where a showdown between Casey and Masazuka becomes inevitable.

Ninja is not an ambitious movie. The sets actually look like studio backlot, the actors are so wooden that trees would be ashamed to be associated with the same adjective. The dialog is clichéd, the script has plenty of plotholes. The movie does not have a single original idea, and the movies that “inspired” certain scenes are obvious. Then again, how many action movies have by now “borrowed” the “Terminator attacks police station” scene from Terminator 1?

Where the movie excels, however, is when it comes to its prime directive: the martial arts action sequences. They don’t go too far over the top, but instead appear quite realistic and yet stunning. There are a few digital effects which are used to enhance some moments (Masazuka’s hypnotic swordwork comes to mind), the fights however are stunts and wire-fu rather than computer effects.

Adkins’s physical presence in this film is most impressive, and his past as a martial artist and stuntman makes his work here convincing. Ihara’s acting is extremely uneven, as if he’s not quite sure what kind of character he’s supposed to portray. Almost from one scene to the next, he switches from being a swaggering thug to someone who just wants to be accepted by his father figure. Which would be fine, if it were made to appear as two facets of the same character. Instead, it seems like two different characters. Mika Hiji’s role suffers from bad writing. Her character is supposed to be the daughter of the ninjutsu dojo’s sensei, and she was supposedly trained in this art since birth. So how does it happen that she has to be rescued by Casey all the time? She shouldn’t have any more problems with the waves of attacking henchmen than he does.

Despite its flaws, however, Ninja delivers what it is supposed to: stunning and amazing martial arts action. As any b-movie connoisseur knows, story and acting are secondary in b-grade martial arts movies. Action is everything, and Ninja delivers it in spades, making this movie a very enjoyable and entertaining way to spend an evening.

Verdict: recommended

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