Tag Archives: Book

“THE MARTIAN” Review (✫✫✫)

Again with this, Matt?

Hollywood has spent too much money trying to bring Matt Damon home. I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. Our first venture to bring him home was in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Then, we brought him home from Syriana. His most recent attempt was in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar. And now we have The Martian.

Don’t worry, it’s a good movie. The story is thorough, the visual effects are convincing, and Damon does a great job evoking tension and sympathy from his viewers. I swear to God though, if he gets himself trapped on another distant planet or war zone anytime soon, I’m leaving his ass behind and joining a traveling circus with Jimmy Kimmel.

Based on the novel of the same name, The Martian tells the story of the Ares III crew, an astronaut team sent to scout and research the planet Mars. While there, the team gets hit by an intense sand storm and is forced to initiate an emergency evacuation from the planet. While making their escape, however, one of their teammates, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by debris and separated from his team. Believing he was killed, his teammates board the ship and launch away from the planet.

The Ares III team forgot to account for one thing, however. Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon, so of course he’s going to survive. He didn’t last through war zones, conspiracy theories, and elaborate heists just to let one planet do him in.

Now alone on a planet that is incapable of sustaining life, Mark Watney needs to figure out how to survive and eventually escape from the planet Mars.

This film is directed by Ridley Scott. You can see that as either a good or bad thing depending on what part of his filmography you’re looking at. It’s true, he’s known for science-fiction classics including Alien and Blade Runner, as well as the Academy Award-winning Gladiator. But in recent years, he’s also been responsible for a number of duds. For example, has anyone seen, and liked, Robin Hood, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings?

Well, don’t worry dear reader: Scott is back in his prime, and he orchestrates his environments beautifully here. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily just because of him. This world was crafted from the mind of author Andy Weir, who before writing The Martian was a software engineer for Sandia National Laboratories, AOL Inc. and Blizzard Entertainment. When he originally published The Martian on his website, he conducted extensive research on Mars’ geography, astrodynamics, and botany to make the book as scientifically accurate as possible.

By the time Ridley Scott and writer Drew Godard read the book, they didn’t have to adapt it so much as reproduce it.

The thing I love most about The Martian is the research that went into it. When it starts, you think this is going to be another survival story in space, not too dissimilar to Gravity or Apollo 13. The surprising thing, though, is that The Martian isn’t so much thrilling as it is fascinating.

Picture being stuck on a planet with no water, no oxygen, and no food. Seems hopeless, right? And indeed it is, but Watney was trained for environments like this. He adapts. He learns to deal with what he is given. So how does he react to having no water, oxygen, or food? He creates his own water by super-heating Mars’ humidity, he tears apart NASA machinery to stockpile on oxygen resources, and he learns to artificially grow his own potato garden by planting them in (don’t vomit) his own feces.

These are just a few of the problems Watney faces in the film. How does he create transportation? How is he going to communicate with NASA? What does he do if a sandstorm blows open a hole in his space station? What if his crops suddenly die out? What if he runs out of oxygen? What then?

This is how the film builds tension: by throwing impossible survival situations at our poor hero and watching as he dissects for a solution. Does his methods get outlandish? Of course they do, but they are reasonably outlandish, and that’s because of the reality Weir grounded Watney in while writing his novel.

Scott’s visual prowess lends well to the film’s scientific applications. In terms of scale, this film operates on a smaller budget than his other recent films (Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings’ budgets were $200 million and $145 million, respectively. The Martian’s was $108 million). Yet, in comparison, I’m inclined to say this is his most visually authentic film yet. The reason is because of Scott’s use of practical effects. For science-fiction films, it’s so easy to place your character in front of a blue screen and plaster generic Mars footage in the background. That wasn’t good enough for Scott. For the background alone, he went and filmed the production in the Wadi Rum Valley in Jordan, which has the appropriate sandy landscapes and shade of red that is accurate to the geography of Mars. He constructed 20 sets for the many areas Watney traverses. His production crew grew legitimate potato crops so they could capture the process of photosynthesis on film. For any other director, they would have settled for the easy way out, plastering CGI around your actor and having them react to what isn’t there. That wouldn’t do The Martian justice. Scott knew that and created the best visuals possible for a movie that deserved it.

I have one gripe with the film, and that is its climax, which ironically is supposed to be the high point of the film. I can’t say exactly what happens with the end, but I will say it went on for too long. By the time we arrive at the climax, we know what’s going to happen to Watney. What kind of a movie would this be if it ended any other way than what we were expecting? The thing is that Scott treats us as if we’re too oblivious to it, and he draws it out to a ridiculous length in an attempt to further thrill his audience. It doesn’t work. By the time the ending rolled around, I was looking at my watch, wondering how much longer this scene was going to drag out. Climaxes aren’t supposed to do that. They’re supposed to keep you further engaged with the film: not waiting, impatiently wondering when its going to end.

So does Mark Watney survive? You tell me. He is played by Matt Damon.

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“PAPER TOWNS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Just a paper boy living in a paper town.

The frames we see in Paper Towns are the stuff of fantasies, the kind that we think about and dream of late at night in our bed while staring at the ceiling. It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. At one point, I was watching the movie and wondering if I was watching someone else’s story, or my own.

If we are watching someone else’s story, that someone is Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. Just about everything is regular to Q except for one thing: Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids.

Q and Margo are the epitome of opposites. Q is shy and introverted. Margo is confident and extroverted. Q likes to play it safe. Margo likes to take risks. Q likes to look ahead and plan for his next step. Margo thinks not knowing where you’ll end up is the most fun part of anything.

One day, Margo completely vanishes. Her parents, her friends, nobody knows where Margo may have gone. As time passes, however, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. A piece of paper in his door. A page torn out of a map. Writing on an old gas station wall that reads “You will go to the paper towns, and you will never come back.” Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film (with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars), Paper Towns is a truly unique and invigorating experience, refreshing in its comedy, in its drama, and in its truth. It reminds me so much of The Fault In Our Stars, and yet, it’s so different from it too.

I’ll start with the best thing from both movies: the characters. Green’s novels have such a unique way of making ordinary characters extraordinary, and that’s just as true with the movies as it is the books. Margo is a spur-of-the-moment, lively and rebellious teenager who serves as more or less an enigma of what adventures high school students fantasize about and aspire to. She’s almost too ecstatic to be believable as a character, and that’s exactly the point. As Q says it best in the movie, “It’s so silly, it can only be true.”

The moments where she takes Q on her midnight adventures are probably some of my favorite scenes in the movie. While Margo was pushing Q to get out of his comfort zone, I was reminded of a scene between the two leads from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.

Isabelle: We could get in trouble.

Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.

Every other supporting character is just as interesting and likeable as Margo is, however less mysterious. Q’s friends, Radar and Ben (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams), are the mischievous sort that talk about high school rumors and made up sex stories just like immature high school students do. Halston Sage portrays Margo’s best friend Lacey, and while she’s convincing and bubbly in the role, she’s a little too old to convincingly look like she’s still in high school. Most of the younger cast is ages 18 to 20. Sage is 22.

The one that most impresses me is Nat Wolff. Originally a supporting character in The Fault In Our Stars, here Wolff transitions front and center as the lead role in Paper Towns. His versatility as an actor is pitch-perfect here, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. Actors in these roles tend to overplay them, either with an over exaggeration of joy or sadness. Not Wolff. Hearing him crack his voice or watching his eyes tear up gets more of a reaction out of me than the overabundance of tears and sobbing we get out of actors who overdo it in other movies. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it. He doesn’t miss a note.

Everything else in the movie is primed to near-perfection. The comedy is fresh and wholehearted without being on-the-nose or over-the-top. The drama is grounded and believable, and hits on issues that most teenagers experience on the verge of growing up and moving on to college. The only minor complaint I would have with the movie is that some of the plot elements seem so out there for teenagers under 18, but the movie addresses that near the end of the third act.

All in all, Paper Towns does what its supposed to and when its supposed to do it. It made me laugh abundantly and uncontrollably. It made me choke up and quiver. It made me intrigued and interested. And it made me eagerly happy and excited, not unlike the excitement these characters experience with each other throughout the film. I may have been too much of a romanticist while writing this review, but I’d like to think Green was one while he was writing the book. The movie delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Just because not everything happened, doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

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“AMERICAN SNIPER” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

And hero, husband, and father.

Chris Kyle was an American sniper. Serving four tours in Iraq, with 160 confirmed kills and approximately 95 more unconfirmed, Kyle earned the title of being called the most lethal sniper in American history. More than being a soldier, though, he’s a father, a husband, and a friend. He was killed in 2013 at age 38. He was shot by a soldier suffering from PTSD that he was trying to help.

We know all these details going into Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. We already know how it ends, we just don’t know everything leading up to it. Eastwood understands this, and uses it to his advantage as his film not only gives an honorable tribute to one of America’s most committed soldiers, but also foreshadows to a sad fate that we already know is coming. Gee, thanks a lot Clint. I didn’t even bring my tissues.

The film opens on the same startling scene that the book does: with Kyle looking down the scope of his sniper rifle at an Iraqi mother and her child, both of whom were aiming to suicide bomb a battalion of soldiers on the street. Eastwood sets up the tension of the scene perfectly here, with Kyle’s sweaty, darting eyes surveying the scene and desperately trying to see any way out of the tormenting choice he has to make. He soon dreadfully realizes there is no way out: it’s either the mother and her child, or the 15 soldiers and the suffering of their families back at home.

Think about being given that situation, about how devastating the experience must be and how haunting it must be to the person who has to make it. Now imagine having to make that same choice day, after day, after day, with your numbers climbing up until you’ve reached over 250 kills.

That’s the life of a soldier that Kyle has lived.

Kyle is portrayed in the film by Bradley Cooper, and both Cooper and Eastwood do a wonderful job representing Kyle here. They show that before he was a soldier, he was a citizen, an American with strong ideals and opinions and unafraid to show them or fight for them. Before he was shipped out and went on tour, they showed how normal Kyle was.

They showed that before he was a soldier, he was a man.

After having to make those difficult decisions day after day, how do you think that affects a man? In interviews, the real-life Kyle has said that he would not take back a single shot because every one that he took was to defend his brothers in uniform. I believe him when he says that, but I don’t believe that it didn’t leave an impact on him. Some soldiers suffer PTSD from killing just one man. How do you think more than 200 may have impacted Kyle?

Both Eastwood and Cooper do a great job humanizing Kyle here, and show that he’s more than the record kills he’s garnered. They show that Kyle is a man of coarse humor and blunt honesty, a man with a thick Texan accent and ideals, a man who tries to show that he’s strong and dependable, but who deep down is hurting and alone. The film is intimate in the ways that it shows Kyle, both in the chaos of battle and in the quietness of being home.

Cooper especially does a skillful job in portraying the iconic war hero. He expresses trauma and subtlety with the character so masterfully that the only differences I can tell between him and Kyle are minor facial features.

This movie has stirred controversy as of late for being “pro-war,” and for glorifying a man who was essentially labeled a murderer. I’m convinced these same people haven’t seen the same movie I saw, because the movie I watched unabashedly looks at the miseries of war and how the deaths Kyle could and couldn’t prevent affected him. The movie does suffer some slight pacing issues (not to mention the infamous “fake baby” seen in one of the shots), but when Eastwood resurrects a war hero to show the man behind the legacy, how can you look at this movie’s scope and not feel something for all of the physical and moral sacrifices Kyle had to give for his home? When the trumpet plays proudly over the solemnity in the end credits, you know that Eastwood represented a warrior in heart and a human in spirit.

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“THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” Review (✫✫✫)

And the Dwarf King: The Battle for Himself. 

Here it is, at last: the end of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It hasn’t arrived without it’s challenges. Originally, the series was supposed to be directed by Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro before he dropped out and let Peter Jackson hop back in the director’s chair. Then, Jackson decided to turn it from two movies into three because he wanted to “expand the story.” Then in April, he decided to retitle the third film from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. Every indication from the production of this film has shown that the movie was going to be either the weakest entry or the most unnecessary film out of the series. Jackson, however, has overcome every obstacle in his path and made a film that is just as exciting, enduring, and memorable as any other film in the series. Jackson’s persistence is something to be admired.

Picking up after that horrible cliffhanger of an ending we got from The Desolation of Smaug, The Battle of the Five Armies opens with Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) laying waste to the village of Laketown shortly after he was set free by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). After setting the village on fire and killing many of the villagers, Bard the bowman (Luke Evans) escapes from prison, climbs the highest tower he can find, and kills the dragon with the black arrow he inherited from his father.

With Smaug dead, the dwarves have taken possession of the Lonely Mountain. However, something strange is happening to Thorin. He has become more greedy, violent, and eager to find the Arkenstone in the chamber and become the next king of the mountain. Bilbo has noticed his new attitude, and finds it disturbingly similar to that of Smaug’s personality. As tensions grow inside the mountains, things heat up with elven, eagle, orc, and human armies assembling outside of the mountains as well. Now with the four armies gathering to take the mountain from the dwarves, Thorin gathers his own dwarf (and hobbit) army to protect their inheritance and keep it from unworthy hands.

The third movie in any trilogy is always the most crucial. It either makes or breaks the series, making it just as memorable as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or as half-baked as the Matrix trilogy. Part of me wonders why they even had to make a third movie at all, and why they couldn’t just combine this with The Desolation of Smaug. That was originally the plan, after all, but I guess if they did that, they would run the risk of shoehorning two plots into one film.

Honestly though, I don’t know if it would have been that big of an issue. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies offers exactly what the title suggests: a battle which is bigger and bolder than any other fight in the Lord of the Rings movies. Yes, that includes the final siege on Sauron in Return of the King and the fight against Smaug in Desolation of Smaug. The scale and scope is bigger here than any other Lord of the Rings movie, with elves, dwarves, eagles, orcs, villagers, trolls, wizards, spirits, and a hobbit crashing, slashing, and colliding into each other like nobody’s business. This is the most action-packed Lord of the Rings movie yet, with it’s final lengthy action sequence clocking in at about over an hour.

Some of the action runs rampant and gets repetitive now and then. In one scene, for instance, Legolas the elf fights against an orc on a tumbling castle. The scene ran for well over 20 minutes, with them clashing swords and fists against each other, and I sat there wondering to myself “Why couldn’t he just trip him off and be done with it?”

But here’s the interesting thing: no matter how long the action ran, it kept me engaged. If this were a Michael Bay or a John Woo picture, the action would have ran wild and I would have gotten bored about 10 minutes into it. But Jackson is more talented than most filmmakers. He understands that in order for your audience to be invested in the action, they need to be invested in the characters first, because what’s the point of having characters go through these epic fights if you don’t care about them?

With this movie, I noticed that the character I cared most for was not Bilbo Baggins, but Thorin Oakenshield. He has the most interesting arc out of any other character in the movie, spending one half of the film fighting orcs, and the other half fighting himself. His character in the film reminds me a lot of Gollum: his conflict isn’t so much with others trying to take the things precious to him, but with himself in how the things he values most changes him. He especially serves a crucial part in the film’s final climatic battle scene, which is so nerve-wrecking and heart-pounding that it brought me just as much excitement as the climax in Return of the King did. The impressive part? Return of the King’s climax featured an entire armada of warriors, while The Battle of the Five Armies’ climax only needed two.

All in all, The Battle of the Five Armies did to The Hobbit what The Return of the King did to The Lord of the Rings: it wrapped it up nicely into a tight, satisfying conclusion, bringing excitement, emotion, and resolution to these characters that we’ve cared so much for so long now. Granted, it didn’t do as well as The Return of the King did with this, and I personally would have wished that Jackson would have made it less messy and cluttered than it already was. Does that ultimately matter, though, if I had fun watching it? Let’s just be glad that Bilbo made it there and back again in one piece.

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“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” Review (✫✫✫)

Be honest, Mr. Smaug: do you need a breath mint?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is both one of the most satisfying and maddening films of the year. It’s visually splendid, illustrating the joys and perils of the world of Middle-Earth as finely as any movie before it did. It’s emotionally versatile, being comical and lighthearted at certain moments and then treacherous and gloomy in others. The performances are sound, with CGI characters being just as memorable as the live ones. Everything in the film was perfect up until it came to it’s end, which ended on a cliffhanger so big that a slackwire artist couldn’t tightrope across it.

Taking place shortly after the events of An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the journey of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), his troop of dwarves, and the slight hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). After narrowly escaping the clutches of the white orc Azog (Manu Bennett), Bilbo and the rest of the dwarves venture on towards the Lonely Mountains, only having a few days left until the secret entrance closes, leaving them forever locked outside of the Lonely Mountains.

Bilbo, however, has greater concerns if the dwarves do manage to get inside. Deep within the twisty lairs of the mountain lies an endless sea of gold and jewels, and asleep among these riches is the vicious Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a violent, terrifying dragon that formerly laid waste to the dwarves’ land and took their possessions all for himself. If the company does manage to get inside the mountains, Smaug will be waiting there for Bilbo, and there will be a massive conflict between the 100-foot tall fire-breathing dragon and the small, terrified hobbit.

One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings movies is that the stakes are set up really well in them. Peter Jackson, who has been writing/producing/directing/godfathering the series since The Fellowship of the Ring has proven time and time again how well he can make depth-defying set pieces and visual spectacles, all while raising the emotional stakes of the movie.

Here is yet another example of what Peter Jackson can do in a movie. Visually, the film is unparalleled. There were many moments in the film that I recalled for being either visually spectacular or heart-poundingly exciting. One of them was a eerily creepy fight scene where Bilbo and the dwarves were fighting off an army of spiders in a cursed forest. Another was a chase scene where the crew was stuck in a line of barrels while falling down a waterfall. Other instances in the film include when the dwarves encountered a giant who could transform into a bear, or when Gandalf confronted an early confrontation of Sauron in his own castle. And don’t even get me started on when we meet Smaug for the first time. Jackson’s visual prowess excels just as much as his emotional involvement, and with each of his movies, he always seeks how to outdo himself from his last effort. I’d say he’s outdone himself tremendously here: the look of the film shows just that.

The performances are just as refined as the action and visual effects are. Martin Freeman was just as charismatic and loveable as he was the first time he was Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey, and Ian McKellen once again does well as the wise, ambitious, righteously-driven wizard Gandalf. And Richard Armitage has gained traction as Thorin Oakenshield since the first movie, showing that he can be more than the brutish tough guy. He’s a more vulnerable, more fleshed-out character here, with deep desires and hidden intentions showing that perhaps will be explored more in the third installment.

My favorite character by far, however, wasn’t even from a live performance. Benedict Cumberbatch was frightening, fearsome, and daunting as the terrible Smaug, his articulate, vocabulary-filled speech lining up perfectly with his sinister, seething voice. The visual spectacle of Smaug is perfect, with the dragon leaning luminously over his small, feeble enemies, while his long, slender, scaly arms and body lunge across the dungeon like an elongated spider. But the vocal performance is what makes him convincing, what makes him more than just a CGI creation and a terrifying villain in his own right. The minute I heard Smaug speaking to a shaking Bilbo, I had shivers run down my spine. The entire time he was speaking to Bilbo in mysterious anecdotes and sinister undertones, I was on the edge of my seat. When he started to attack, I clutched my mouth and stared endlessly at the screen, wondering and hoping for the fate of these characters in Smaug’s way.

In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo benefits from being a more active protagonist than that of Frodo. Here we have Smaug, a giant, fearsome beast that is more actively sinister and spiteful than the stillness of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

Everything in the film is refined to the quality of film that you’d recall from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My only regret is the copout, cliffhanger of an ending that inspired my theater to erupt into boos and groans. I hate it when movies do this to me. They put in so much effort to make a great film up until the last five minutes, where they pull the rug from under you and say “Sorry, that’s all for now! See you next year!” What was Peter Jackson thinking when he went with this ending? At the end of each Lord of the Rings movie, it ended with some form of closure and assurance that the adventure would continue into the next installment, but you didn’t know how it was going to pan out. It kept us intrigued, and it kept us wondering what would happen next. With this movie, it sets itself up to where we already know how it’s going to end: we just don’t get the payoff along with it.

I quote J.R.R. Tolkien: “Books ought to have good endings.” The same should be said for movies.

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A journey J.R.R. Tolkien would want to go on. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the story I first experienced when I saw The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring for the first time. Like The Wizard Of Oz or Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s a sweeping fantasy about ordinary characters getting thrown into extraordinary circumstances. So if hobbits, dwarves, wizards, and fire-breathing dragons constituted as “ordinary” in this universe, imagine the extraordinary circumstances that they go through.

Serving as a prequel to the J.R.R. fantasy epic The Lord Of The RingsThe Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a relaxed and easygoing hobbit who doesn’t like to do much throughout the day except for eat, sleep, and smoke his pipe every now and then. One day, he gets a visit from a mysterious stranger named Gandalf (Ian McKellen), an elderly wizard who is looking for shelter and a young companion to go on an adventure with. Much against Bilbo’s wishes, Gandalf not only stays in his small village home: he invites an entire company of dwarves, who proceed to wreck Bilbo’s house and eat everything in his fridge.

After having a nervous breakdown and cleaning up his entire house, Bilbo overhears Gandalf and the small dwarf brigade’s plans. Ages ago, the dwarves‘ prized possession, the Lonely Mountain, was overtaken by a vicious fire-breathing dragon named Smaug, who destroyed their village and stole the castle and all of it’s gold for his own desires.

After being betrayed by their allies, the elves, and being left to fight for their land all by themselves, the dwarves are determined to travel back to the mountain and fight for their home. Bilbo must make a decision of continuing to live on his normal, uneventful life, or to reach out, travel with the dwarves, and seek out adventure the likes of which he’s never experienced before.

Remembering that it was only a few years ago when I originally fell in love with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a prequel that hits on all of the right notes, and then some more that I wasn’t expecting. In comparison to it’s elder companion, The Hobbit is uncanny. It has a wide verse of characters, each one being unique and memorable both in appearance and personality. It has a dynamic and involving story, ripe with exposition and emotion, retaining your full attention despite the lengthy run time. And it has highly stylized set pieces and visual spectacles that excite the eyes and overwhelm the mind. Do not mistaken Peter Jackson’s intentions here: he was inspired by Lord of the Rings when he was making The Hobbit.

And yet, there are so many differences from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. One of the biggest, I think, would be it’s protagonist. Bilbo is different from Frodo, his nephew in Lord of the Rings whom Elijah Wood inhabited so wonderfully. They’re similar, of course, in that they are small hobbits not necessarily fit for fighting, but are clever, creative, and courageous nonetheless.

And yet, Bilbo is so much more than Frodo is. He’s funnier, for one thing, a bumbling, clumsy little hobbit that reminds me so much of the antics between Pippin and Merry in the original movies. He’s also more outgoing, a more active protagonist doing more in the film than just holding a ring and trekking long miles. He does so much in the film, sneaking around trolls, fighting Orcs, going through traps and mazes, and having a first-hand involvement in many of the film’s biggest fights. My particular favorite scene is one where he is talking to a fan favorite from The Lord of the Rings about the possession of a mysterious gold, rounded object. Hint: His favorite word is “precious.”

My point in saying all of this is that Bilbo is a dynamic character in his own right, and Martin Freeman handles the character very well. In the previous movie trilogy, Freeman had four hobbit inspirations to pull from, and instead of following just one of them, he took characteristics from all of them and made a character all his own. That took great talent and risk, and Freeman’s efforts paid off, making a character that I think is the most memorable and charismatic hobbit out of all of them.

Without a doubt, the best film in the series is Return of the King. This film is perhaps the second best. Sure, at times it might suffer from a slight overdose on exposition, but doesn’t all of the films? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an adventurous, ambitious gamble of a film, and it makes me believe once again in the power that a wizard, a slew of dwarves, and a brave little hobbit can have.

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“BIG HERO 6” Review (✫✫✫)

“Initiating fist bump.” 

You know there’s going to be some kid out there watching Big Hero 6 thinking “Wow! I want to build a tech super suit too!” Unfortunately, to be able to create something in the likes of Iron Man, you need to have a lot of brains, and that’s something I don’t really have. Intellectual, daring, or different? No, but Big Hero 6 is sure a heckuva lot of fun.

Based loosely off of the Marvel Comics creation of the same name, Big Hero 6 follows a 14 year old braniac named Hiro (Ryan Potter), who has the technical skills that would rival at the levels of Tony Stark’s ego. His brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is a science wiz at a slightly lesser level than Hiro, but still brilliant enough to create Baymax (Scott Adsit), a giant, fluffy medical robot who introduces himself and asks you to rate your pain every time he boots up. In many ways, Tadashi inspires Hiro in everything he does, even convincing him to apply to the technology program at Tadashi’s university.

One day, however, the worst happens: a laboratory fire breaks out at the school, and Tadashi is killed in the midst of trying to rescue one of his professors. Grieved and hurt by his loss, Hiro becomes a recluse and tries to avoid his friends. Only by booting Baymax back up does Hiro learn that the fire was not an accident, and that someone had killed Tadashi in the midst of the chaos. Hiro bunkers down, suits up, and arms Baymax with any technology he can give him to go after this mysterious enemy and avenge his brother.

Man, does that synopsis sound like a Marvel property or what? The biggest worries with animated films like Big Hero 6  is that the filmmakers are going to cash in on their franchise’s name rather than actually work to tell a moving, involving story with the great characters they are already given. Isn’t that where movies like Rise of the Guardians and Shrek 3 fell flat? Animators nowadays aren’t concerned with such tedious things to them as interesting characters or a compelling story: they’re mostly concerned with just making sure things are looking bright and beautiful for the little kiddies rushing to the theaters to give them their weekly allowance.

Big Hero 6, luckily, will not waste any of your money, kiddos. One of the best things about this film is that it is a story first, and a franchise second. Hiro is a likeable and enthusiastic little hero, a young man who has some of that rebellious nature that all teenagers like to have going through puberty, but are still intent on doing the right thing regardless.

Even more than Hiro, however, I love Baymax. How is it that such a cute, wonderful, and buoyant robotic character can even exist? It’s rare to experience a character as literal, one-minded, and oblivious as Baymax and have him be so darn fun. There were scenes in the movie where Baymax literally had to scan and observe Hiro on how to do a fist bump, or where he mistakened a cat as a “hairy baby”. There are many times where characters take things so literally to the point where it is annoying, but I was never annoyed by Baymax’s antics. He’s so innocent, loveable and well-intentioned that I just want to hug his big fluffy body when he asks “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?

There are a few gripes to be had, of course, and they’re the same as they are with most animated films. The story is mostly predictable. The twists revealed aren’t really that shocking because they’ve been done in every other animated film before. The other characters don’t lend much to the story besides Hiro and Baymax, and are mostly just there so that the team can have six members. And especially, absolutely, does the film have to end in an overly long and exaggerated fight sequence. Why does every movie involving superheroes always feel that they have to do this?

Regardless, Big Hero 6 is both fun and fast-moving, with Hiro and Baymax’s humorous conversations to keep our attention until the next big fight scene. The fantasies of the superhero genre dares us to dream bigger and aim higher. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful fantasy to experience.

Note: Of course there’s needs to be an after-credits scene with a very popular cameo appearance. Guess who it is.

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“THE BOOK OF LIFE” Review (✫✫✫)

book of life

Ay caramba, tu joven amantes.

As children, we were told many fairy tales that filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. We looked at the pictures in our tiny children’s books as our parents narrated the words to us, but did we ever stop to think about where these fairy tales came from? The Three Little Pigs came from England. The Little Red Riding Hood, London. The Fountain of Youth, Japan. The Little Mermaid, Denmark. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Germany. So many stories have come from so many places all around the world that by the time they reach us, we have “cleansed” it of it’s culture and Americanized it for our own comfort.

Here, we have Jorge Gutierrez’s own fairy tale called The Book Of Life, and for the sake of the movie I’m glad it didn’t succumb to mainstream appeal by having it take place in Colonial America. The Book Of Life is splendid, a wonderful, uplifting, joyous, and immensely entertaining animation engulfed and inspired by the culture Gutierrez came from. Think about how quickly you are swept away when you read the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and you can imagine how this film sweeps you up in that exact same way.

Told as a story within a story similar to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, The Book Of Life follows a group of schoolchildren through a museum as they are told the tale of Manolo (Diego Luna), a Mexican bull fighter who is fighting for the heart of his childhood friend Maria (Zoe Saldana). His closest friend and rival, Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is also fighting for her love, and when they finally see each other after many years apart, they begin their pursuit for Maria’s love.

Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a heavy secret hides behind their innocent intentions. The spirits of the afterlife La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the world of the remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), the one who rules the world of the forgotten, have placed a bet on these three friends. If Manolo ends up marrying Maria, La Muerte wins and gets to rule both the land of the remembered and the forgotten. If Joaquin marries Maria, Xibalba wins and he gets to rule the land of the remembered. The world of the undead is at stake here, and it’s up to Manolo, Maria, and Joaquin to set things right.

What do I say about an animated children’s film that’s based around Mexican fables and customs? The Book Of Life is a wonderful animation: bright, vibrant, colorful, and lively all at once. Writer/director/animator Jorge Gutierrez has a careful eye for detail, and does well in visually adapting to different scenes, settings, and moods.

In one scene, after one of the supporting characters die, the setting suddenly becomes dark. The sun drops. The candles burn out. A cloudy fog envelops in the sky as rain drops pellet onto the ground. In the very next scene, however, we see the world of the remembered from this deceased person’s perspective, and it is lively colors light up with shiny, gold-brick pathways illuminating everywhere and with Churros and balloons floating as far as the eye can see.

This is what I mean when I say the animation is versatile: it’s attentive, eye-catching, and delightful, demanding your attention the minute you lay your eyes on it. But it’s not just the animation that works so well with this movie. The Book of Life is entrenched and inspired in its own culture, living and breathing the Mexican customs though every frame of its run time.  There is one work that Gutierrez did this with before The Book Of Life, and that is the Annie award-winning Nickelodeon cartoon series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” Now we have The Book of Life, and I feel it will spur on many Mexican children and families to pick up their heritage and be proud to represent it. In a day and age where Hollywood feels they need to Americanize everything, The Book of Life is a Godsend.

Everything else in this film functions exactly as it is supposed to. The story is mostly formula in that there has to be a good guy, a bad guy, a forbidden love, a big fight scene at the end, and a happy ending. The voice cast is solid, and Channing Tatum didn’t annoy the living daylights out of me for a change. And the music by Gustavo Santaolallo is pristine and authentic, with the plucking of the Mexican guitar strings filling your ears with wonderfully harmonic sound.

But make no mistake. The best thing about this film is the inspiration Gutierrez instills in it, the inspiration that his parents most likely instilled in him when he was still just a little boy. I hope there will be a children’s novelization of this film in the future and that it too will inspire children of all ages, regardless of their heritage.

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“GONE GIRL” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Gone Girl

What happened to Amy Dunne?

When I started watching Gone Girl, I had no idea what happened between Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Now I have finished the movie, and I still have no idea what happened between the two of them.

Gone Girl is a very strong psychological thriller, packaging the essential elements of tension, grit, and confusion to make an extremely fascinating, yet equally frustrating, watch. Imagine you’re driving on a highway, except you take a wrong turn. Then you take another wrong turn. Then you take another, then another, and then another after that. Gone Girl is that highway, taking you through so many twists and turns that you don’t know which way you’re going anymore. The only problem is that there’s no end destination when you get off of the highway.

Based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl starts with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) coming home to see his living room torn apart and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. There are a few details that disturb him upon this discovery. The glass table is smashed in. Chairs are overturned. A blood splatter can be spotted above the stove in the kitchen. Suddenly, Nick finds himself swept into a media frenzy as everyone everywhere cries out “Where’s Amy?” as he and Amy’s parents work to find Amy and bring her back home.

Yet, in the midst of all of this media attention, people start to recognize strange things about Nick. He’s behaving oddly for someone who has just lost his wife. A woman outside of a press conference takes a selfie with him and posts it online. He smiles at the conference when people take his picture. And as police discover Amy’s diary and uncover incriminating evidence about Nick’s marriage with Amy, people start to ask one question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife?

Let me start by saying this: there’s no way to expect anything from this film. The minute you think Gone Girl is going in a specific direction, it does a reversal and goes in the complete opposite direction, setting you on another prediction track until it does another reversal. There are many factors contributing to these twists, the biggest one being the writing contributions of Gillian Flynn. Flynn, who wrote the original book, was adamant about being involved in writing the screenplay for David Fincher’s adaptation, and she’s a good sport as far as working with him. Even though there are a few differences conceptually from the book, the work remains a whole emotionally, and lets off this gnawing paranoia on both characters as we question who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse.

The writing is ingenious, but the real star of this show is David Fincher. Fincher, who is no stranger to mind-bending plots (1997’s The Game, 1999’s Fight Club, and 2007’s Zodiac), incorporates elements from all of his movies into this one mind-bending thriller. It has plot twists as big as those in The Game, the pseudo/suicidal/mind trickery in Fight Club, the dark, disturbing realism in Zodiac, and the broad, expressive shots, angles, and edits from The Social Network. I like this about Fincher films, that they’re so distinct in visual style that you can almost instantly tell that it’s a David Fincher film.

Example: In the opening sequence of The Social Network, we capture the essence of the scenery as a lonely Mark Zuckerberg trots back to his dorm. We get a sense of the campus he’s on, the bridges, the buildings, the sidewalks, the trees. We not only feel the physical surroundings around him, but also the life that’s in it, almost like the scenery is breathing around him. Fincher did the same thing during The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and he did it again with Gone Girl. When he’s not filming a scene where there’s a tense exchange of dialogue between characters, he’s quietly viewing the scenery all around him, telling a story with silent images just as much as he does with outspoken characters.

More than what he does shot-wise though, I’m impressed with how he handles his cast. Look at the names associated with this film. Ben Affleck. Rosamund Pike. Tyler Perry. Neil Patrick Harris. Are any of these names what you’d expect to see in an intricate crime-thriller, let alone give a decent performance? I mean, the last memorable role Perry had since dressing up in drag as Madea is Alex Cross, and that was about as complacent as an action movie can get. Neil Patrick Harris’ most serious movie role is as himself in Harold and Kumar. Rosamund Pike is most known as a Bond girl. Affleck’s acting career is self-explanatory. I looked at all of these actors cast in these roles, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing in a Fincher film.

Then I saw what he did with them, and I couldn’t see anyone else in their roles. Perry played Dunne’s attorney Tanner Bolt, and he was so smug and straightforward that he could lend Robert Downey Jr. a few tips for The Judge. Harris steps so wonderfully into a role he’s never played before, and Pike is exemplary too, though I won’t exactly specify how. Affleck to me was the most interesting. He uses awkward lulls, blank expressions, and his sterile voice just like he did during some of his bad performances in past movies. It’s not a bad performance though. Fincher is just using Affleck’s natural reactions to lend details to Nick Dunne’s character, like how he could be smiling in pictures while his wife is missing, or why he sounds so unconvincing when he gives a speech about how he loves his wife to ongoing listeners. Fincher uses both Affleck’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor to the film’s advantage, and that goes the same for everyone else in the film.

I liked many things from this film. The cinematography, the editing, the thought-provoking plot, Fincher’s masterful direction of the film and it’s cast all culminated into a jaw-dropping experience. My only regret about this film is it’s ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it ends in the same way that it begins, posing questions and vague thoughts so that the audience may fill it with their wild imaginations. I realize Fincher and Flynn did not intend to have a straightforward, clear-cut ending, but I have a stubborn need for closure. Films are supposed to provide answers to the questions they’ve already posed to you. Gone Girl does not provide an answer. It provides a question.

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“THE FAULT IN OUR STARS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

And the stars have never shone brighter.

The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical films you will ever see. It is also one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, funny, genuine, and real films you will ever see. It does exactly what the book does, and exactly what movies are supposed to do: it sweeps you away, transporting you, making you forget about your own reality and immerses you into the reality of these fictional characters that don’t seem so fictional. While I was watching the movie, someone in the audience leaned over to me and asked if this was a true story. “No, but it deserves to be,” I thought to myself.

Based off of the highly popular book of the same name by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a spirited, spunky, and sarcastic teenager who loves to read books, watch horrible reality TV shows, and question everything her parents tell her to do. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is another spirited, spunky, and sarcastic teenager who loves to watch movies, play video games, and ponder the many questions about the universe. Hazel and Gus are both like any regular teenager but with one significant difference: they’re cancer survivors.

Note that I said survivors. They’ve had cancer in the past, Hazel in her lungs and Gus in his right leg, but both have since moved on from their ordeals to try and tackle their lives as any other teenager would. Because of Hazel’s lungs, she has to carry around a respiratory machine (Oxygen tank instead? Machine sounds intensive) with her everywhere she goes, and what would seem like a simple task to anyone else (I.e. standing up, or walking a flight of stairs), nearly exhausts Hazel after doing so. Gus, on the other hand, has a prosthetic replacing his right leg in exchange for being cancer free.

One day, they both meet each other at a cancer support group meeting. Hazel notices Gus having a bounce to his step, despite only having one full leg. Gus notices Hazel’s beautiful face even though she’s deoxygenated. As they continue to meet and see each other, they soon realize that they have a special relationship with each other, one that no “normal” human being could ever possess.

From a first glance, some people may look at this movie and see it as an overly optimistic tween romance, where two characters fall in love, and their love beats all things, including their ailments. I know I did when I first heard about it, and why wouldn’t I? Romantic dramedies have a way of underemphasizing conflicts just so characters can have happy endings. As a result, we get movies that are more cheesy and insincere than they are genuine and heartfelt, much like those ungodly Nicholas Sparks movies.

But The Fault In Our Stars is different. It is not manipulative of it’s emotions and it doesn’t downplay the severity of character’s problems. It’s honest and up front about the challenges these teenagers face, and doesn’t shy away from the severity of it just because they’re children. In fact, Hazel Grace herself dispels the notion at the beginning of the film, saying to her listeners “That wouldn’t be the truth. This is the truth. Sorry.”

I know, I’m late on writing this review. Why am I writing this in October, when the movie has already come out on DVD? I was waiting, dear reader. Waiting to read the book and see not only how faithful the movie was to it’s source material, but also to it’s emotions. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can bend the plot of the original story, but you cannot bend the emotions and still remain faithful.

Now I have read the book, and I can tell you firsthand from my experience that the movie held up to the book on both counts. The Fault In Our Stars is a breathtaking experience: touching, deliberate, and beautiful all at once. To say it’s faithful to the book is an understatement. It’s quite possibly one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I’ve ever seen.

The things that work so well in the movie are the same things that work so well in the book: the writing and the characters. At the heart of the entire story, movie and book included, is Hazel Grace, who is such a fascinating and singular character that it makes me sad to think that she doesn’t exist. Hazel isn’t like other cancer-ridden characters. She neither has an overly defeatist attitude of her ailment, or an overly optimistic perspective one either. She’s in the neutral realm, seeing her sickness as a part of her no matter what she does, and choosing to accept it because she’s more or less forced to.

And yet, she’s so much more than her sickness. In many ways, she’s just like any other regular teenager. She has a favorite book. A favorite author. A favorite show. A favorite food. A crush. And like any other teenager her age, she’s bursting with opinions, hopes, fears, and desires, all of which combine to make a completely fascinating, involving and passionate character. We quickly learn to love Hazel not because she has cancer, but because she is unique.

On that note, let me talk about Augustus. Can I just say that I love this kid? Gus is filled with spirit and enthusiasm, having a bounce to his step that contrasts with Hazel’s shy trotting. I find it interesting that even though I don’t like it when characters are unrealistically happy, here Gus is almost nothing but happy. He thinks it’s cool that he has a metal prosthetic leg, seeing it as him being half-cyborg. He likes video games, zombies, and heroism, seeing himself as one of the brave movie heroes who sacrifices himself for the sake of the people he loves. In many ways, that’s who he is: the hero of the movie, bringing all of the love and affection he could for the woman he loves. He’s so great in the film, he could have a movie all to himself if he wanted to.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to both of these persons by their characters, not by the actors that portray them. That’s because Woodley and Elgort slip so wonderfully into their roles that they’ve completely disappeared into them. I didn’t think about The Descendants when I saw Woodley tear up and cry, or when she picked up her BiPAP and exhausted herself walking up the stairs. I didn’t think of Divergent when Elgort so tenderly cared to her needs, or sweetly telling her that he would be honored to have his heart broken by her. I saw these actors and was so immersed into their performances that I no longer thought about what they were and thought more about who they were. These two are not Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. They are Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.

Everything else in this movie was made to near perfection. The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber adapted the story and emotions wonderfully from the book. The camera work by Ben Richardson was elegant and harmonic, much like the great work he did with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. And director Josh Boone guides the actors through the blissfully tragic story created by John Green, whose wondrous words were what made this entire movie possible.

That ends the review with one question: which is better? The book, or the movie? Neither. I could argue that the book is better because it has more content, or I could argue the movie is better because it brought the story to life visually. Both arguments are pointless. They are both two different mediums, but they both tell the same wonderful story.

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