Monday, May 31, 2010

read: The Jury Master

The Jury Master The Jury Master by Robert Dugoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How fast I get through a book is a pretty good gauge of how good a book is. The ones that don't work seem to take forever, both figuratively and literally. The good ones fly by. I just blew through this one in a week, and that's not a mean feat for a novel of 450 pages that only gets picked up at bedtime.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Even a little more than its sequel, Wrongful Death: A Novel. The third David Sloane novel, Bodily Harm: A Novel, is queued up and will get consumed soon.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" [B]

A minute into the closing credits, it occurred to me that what I'd just seen, the whole hour and a half, was reminiscent of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine - an absurd primary color world that even the characters don't quite understand. No, there isn't a cartoon rock band or blue meanies, but there is a struggle to find one's identity. In this instance, the seeker is a young inventor who's always felt like, and been treated as, an outcast.

When one of his inventions finally works, and seems to solve the problems of his community by producing food from water that literally falls from the sky like rain, he seems to be accepted. Obviously, this will lead to problems. However, the problems have to escalate to the usual level of worldwide cataclysm to be solved. And then they must be solved in usual manner of epic battle. Thankfully, this typical story plays out in imaginative and entertaining fashion. You've never seen food issues like this before.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (IMDb)

"Surrogates" [B-]

Surrogates asks an interesting what-if question and ultimately comes up with a thought provoking twist on an answer. What-if you could replace your public persona with an android of any shape, size, color, or sex? Of course, not everyone would think that's a good idea and not everyone could afford it. This film lightly explores the former idea and seems to ignore the latter. It also only touches on the implications for real interpersonal relations and pretty much ignores the problem of personal fitness for a population forever reclining in their avatar pilot couches.

Rather than explore these issues, it uses the full arsenal of modern special effects to create a standard story of political and economic intrigue with this science fiction premise laid on top. But it does work as an action-mystery movie, even though Bruce Willis does seem to be a bit bored with it at times.

Surrogates (IMDb)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Iron Man 2" [B+]

There's plenty of action and plenty of story in this direct sequel to the previous Iron Man. That keeps things moving along at a furious clip. And it makes each scene shimmer and snap with electricity, technology, and drama. The problem is that there is too much going on. Too many story threads. Too many technological leaps by solo inventor-physicists. Too many family conflicts. Too much political and corporate intrigue. Too many robots on the screen. The script could probably have been dialed back by 20-30% on all of these indices and still been a heck of a flick and easier to follow.

Even so, I liked it a lot, especially the subtle touches of Howard Stark's Disneyesque appearance and the syncronicity of his City of Tomorrow with EPCOT (and the similarity of the song "Make Way For Tomorrow Today" with "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" from the GE/Disney Carousel of Progress).

Iron Man 2 (IMDb)

read: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
As much as I wanted to, I didn't make it through this. The first few chapters narrated by Dr. Impossible were captivating. I loved his voice - both the actual voice actor on the audiobook and the tone and attitude of the character himself. But then the super heroine spoke. While the voice actor for this heroine was creditable, the attitude and role of the character were insufferable. All she did was dump information about herself and the rest of the super hero camp. Then I noticed that Dr. Impossible was starting to do the same thing. Both of them were doing a lot of telling with only a little showing and both first-person narrators were dumping more information than they could have possibly been privy to. The author was simply showing off. In my mind, the author also didn't help things by writing in the present tense, rather than past. I'm sure this was a stylistic choice, and it worked for some scenes, but really felt wrong for most. Other reviewers have pointed out similar takes on superheroes that were done better. I may have to give one of those a try.

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read: Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic...with a Blood-Sucking Twist

Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic... With a Blood-Sucking Twist Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic... With a Blood-Sucking Twist by Sherri Browning Erwin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is first of the paranormalized classics I've gotten to read (mostly, I'll admit, because I managed to snag a free copy from I found to be pretty good, page-turning fun.

The original classic is not one that I've read (other than a quick skim of the first chapter and a recent watching of the 1944 film version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Wells), so I can't fully vouch for the harmony of this version with the plot, characters, tone, or style of Miss Brontë's volume. But I can say that it satisfied my own inner ear and expectations.

The Buffy-zation of Jane and her world was mostly seamless. Once one accepted the fact that vampires, zombies, and ultimately a werewolf or two inhabited her world, allowing her to become a kung fu fighter in petticoats was an easy step. At a few points I felt the author threatening to strain my suspension of disbelief. But these quickly resolved and the story continued with consonance.

There are a bunch of these books coming out now (I've even spotted one based on Huckleberry Finn). It's tempting to read them all. But I'm certain I could not survive on an exclusive diet of this dish for an extended period. I nonetheless plan to snack on a few in the coming months.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

"The Princess and the Frog" [B+]

There's plenty of character in this latest Disney animated feature. And I'm not just referring to the people and animals written into the story. There's also the animation itself, which is refreshingly not computer generated. There is a warmth and style to this film that is missing from the slick pixels that have been beamed at us lately.

The characters have plenty of character, too, even if they are a little more PC than in the past. There's a dreamy girl who is a workaholic longing to fulfill her daddy's dream of opening a restaurant, rather than waiting for a prince to come like her rich girlfriend. She winds up matched to the dreamy prince who does comes to town, seeking a bride to bail him out, since he's lost his inheritance. He manages to get bamboozled by a witch doctor and get them both turned into frogs. This makes it much more convenient for them to fall in love, since we can now dispense with any of the questions about race that plagued the humans in New Orleans in the 1920s.

The one thing this typical musical Disney show is missing is memorable music. Usually there's at least one tune that gets stuck in your head. But Randy Newman's score is sadly lacking in that department. There's no "Bare Necessities", "Under the Sea", or "Hakuna Matata". Oh, well. We'll just have to be satisfied with the clever animation.

The Princess and the Frog (IMDb)

"The Men Who Stare At Goats" [B]

"Weird" That's the word I hear quite a bit after viewing an off-beat film with my spouse. This time around, I have to agree 100%. This movie is pretty weird. Then again, you'd have to pretty much expect that, based on the title and the posters and the trailer.

Loosely based on allegedly real incidents from the 1970s and 1980s and tied together with a framing story set in the modern Middle East, the film surveys various tactics and methods of mind control with which the Army secretly experimented. The storytelling has an odd tone where one is never quite sure if what is on screen is supposed to be serious or a joke. There are some moments of genuine drama. But these are overwhelmed with enough humor that the end result is really more of a farce than a thriller. "Weird."

Acting and directing is first rate. I couldn't help but get bumped out of the pseudo-reality though, every time Ewan McGregor had to hear or say a line referring to Jedi. I'm sure he was biting the inside of his cheek.

The Men Who Stare at Goats (IMDb)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Young @ Heart" [B+]

If these feisty old folks singing rock and roll don't capture your heart, then you're dead already. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what this documentary would be like, given the title, subject matter, and wide publicity. Even so, I found myself literally agog for the first 10 minutes or so and had to (self) consciously close my mouth. After that I was constantly smiling (except when I was almost ready to cry), and laughed out loud more than once.

The filmmaker gets us up close and personal with the members of the chorus, yet he never really puts them on display as any sort of freaks. He shows how mightily they work for their performances. And he shows how mightily they are received by their real audiences. And how mightily they relish their opportunity to celebrate life, even when some of their number pass out of this life. This is a film about life and joy.

Young @ Heart (IMDb)

Friday, May 7, 2010

read: The Sorcerer's House

The Sorcerer's House The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The moment I saw that Neil Gaiman had given this a high rating, I put it on my reading list. But once I got several days into it, I knew there were problems. I was reading it at bedtime and it was putting me to sleep too quickly.

Maybe I'm one of those lazy readers that Neil mentions in his review, but I never quite "got" this book, other than it's written as a series of letters to and from an ex-con who starts out as a squatter and becomes the owner of a house with odd properties and odd characters hanging about.

The writing is clear, if oddly flat for such a fantastic situation. This may be consistent with typical letter-voice, but made the reading uninteresting. Sorry to say that because I found the writing so flat and, I skipped through the book. That means I probably missed some interesting parts and clues to the puzzles to which other reviewers have referred.

Gene Wolfe has such a huge reputation that I will have to read something else he's written. I am presuming it will be better than this. [More...]

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

read: Little Fuzzy

Little Fuzzy Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When John Scalzi mentioned this book on his blog, I knew it would be classic and quaint. But I expected it to be a little more timeless. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Scalzi does to update it.

In the meantime, I listened to the audiobook to see what the hubbub was about. Wow. Piper wrote a future that is just like our present, except we have travel to other worlds, contra-gravity, and verdicators (advanced lie detectors). Overall, the story was interesting enough and pleasant enough. However, I found the writing fairly clunky. I also disliked some stereotypical characters and a bit of deus ex machina at the end. Nevertheless it was enjoyable. [More...]

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" [B-]

Maybe my expectations, based on all of the positive reviews and an Oscar nomination, were too high. Maybe I was too tired. Maybe the storytelling was not compelling or the characters too flat or the dialog too low key for an animated film or the world made even less sense than Wallace and Gromit's. For whatever reason, the only things that I liked about Mr. Fox were the animation and the music. I don't really understand what all of the buzz was about.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (IMDb)