Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Title: Brave
Director: Mark Andrews
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 93 minutes
Classification: PG
Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Comedy, Kids and Family, Animation

From the trailer, I thought Brave was about how a princess avoids marriage by defeating an evil bear, or something. What the movie is actually about is how Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) “changes” her mother via witchcraft so that her mother doesn't push for her to get married. The film in essence is about this mother-daughter relationship. This adds a original spin to the usual “hero's quest” story, and provides a refreshing change from the usual romantic focus in princess stories.

I am perhaps showing my age here, but I found it problematic that I sided with Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) pretty much from the get-go. I did not find Merida to be very likeable, at least at the beginning, and indeed thought her rather selfish for being so resentful of her (privileged) life. However, I doubt many others will have this same problem. I had expected a bit more historical realism and I realise that I was wrong to do so.
Brave is a children's movie after all, and it will of course result in a happy ending in line with modern values. I suppose it's meant to be a celebration of ~girl power~ and ~independence~, but for me this message didn't carry any real weight: Merida's life isn't exactly horrible to begin with and her problems are mainly self-inflicted. On the flip side, the mother-daughter opposition allows for both characters to grow during the course of the film, and this was one of the film's strengths. The heroine is brave and all, but her journey, like her mother's, is ultimately one of learning to compromise. I suppose “Taking Responsibility” or “Humility” just aren't nearly so catchy as “Brave”.

Though it's an interesting enough story, I didn't particularly like the way it was told. As soon as I got a sense of what the film was about, the narrative structure became so obvious that I was often just waiting for things to happen – things like the “What Have I Done?” moment and the Bonding Activity Montage. While being predictable is not of itself a bad thing, I felt in this case there was a lack of wonder to make up for it. There was a sense of rigidity to the plot, a sense of “this is what has to happen next” rather than “oh no, that event has caused this other thing to happen”. I suppose I'm making it out to be worse that in it is, but frankly I'd expected better storytelling from Pixar.

Still, it's a fairly funny film, with many physical gags that both kids and adults would enjoy. In this instance, the trailer does a fairly good job of showing the flavour of humour that's in the film more generally. It also looks fantastic. Everything, from Merida's hair to the forests to the fabric of the queen's dress to the snowy landscapes, looks great. The Celtic music also added to the feel of Ye Olde Scotland, and there is a charming, cheerful atmosphere to the whole film. Further, it was also pleasant to hear Scottish accents all around (rather than just for a couple of old people – you know how it is when there's an animated film involving an ethnic group... *cough*
Mulan, Gargoyles, Avatar: The Last Airbender *cough*).

Enjoyable as it was, however, I didn't like this movie as much as I hoped I would. There's a lot of charm in the window dressing, but the business-like plot drags things down somewhat, and the characters so compelling so as to negate this. It's not Pixar's best, but it's still pleasant and fun.

Remember to take my review with a grain of salt as I am clearly not the film's intended audience. I believe that kids will find much to enjoy this film, as they are highly unlikely to be as cynical and genre savvy as I am. Though... if your kids are like me, then, well, good luck with that. 

NOTE: If you're watching this in the cinema, be sure to get there in time. The short film
La Luna is shown before this one, and it's just the most adorable thing ever. I enjoyed it much more than Brave itself.

Alex's Rating: 3/5

Friday, 20 July 2012

Movie Review: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Title: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also known as Furyo)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Year Released: 1983
Running Time: 123 minutes
Classification: R
Genre: Drama, Historical

The only reason I'd heard of this movie was because of its stunning main theme (original here, plus some other versions). And being the flawlessly logical person I am, I thought to myself that a film with such wonderful music must surely be wonderful itself. When further investigation revealed that it was set in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp and featured morality issues, homoerotic tension and David Bowie, I went for it (interpret that how you will).

The movie deals with the morality of war, and the camp is not insignificantly located in (neutral) Java. There is no “right” side to root for. At the centre of the film is the relationship between four men, Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti), Capt. Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also scored the movie), Maj. Celliers (Bowie) and Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano). Yonoi, who runs the camp, imports the defiant Celliers as a replacement for Group Capt. Hicksley (Jack Thompson, with a very Nigel Thornberry kind of accent going on), who is the incumbent spokesmen for the prisoners. Through their relationship – as well as that of Lawrence, who acts as interpreter, and Hara, a camp officer – the film explores East-West values and relations. The use of both English and Japanese dialogue gives both sides “equal” standing whilst also placing further emphasis on the cultural divide.

The film has a strangely seductive atmosphere, enhanced in no small part by the music. There is an amateurish, almost home made quality to the film as well, which both adds and detracts from the experience. On the one hand, everything looks startlingly genuine, particularly the violence; on the other, sometimes you can almost hear the actors thinking “okay, so you said your line, now it's my turn to say my line – and I'll do it with feeling!”.

The acting in general is not the best, though I would attribute the problem of “looks obviously like they know what to say/do next” to the direction. Too many times, I was reminded that I was watching a film. The worst of it comes in the flashback scene, where David Bowie plays a schoolboy and all his schoolmates wait patiently to deliver their lines in strong Kiwi accents. This really pulled me out of the story, making me think dumb things like “Oh, they must have shot this in New Zealand. Unless he's not British? I'm pretty sure he's British...” and “Really? You want me to buy Bowie as a teenager? Bowie, who looks at least fifteen years older than everyone else...?
Really?”. It was very distracting, to put it mildly.

I also found the film boring at times, an impression enhanced no doubt by the performances. I know it's meant to be one of those vague, complex, psychological slow-burn kind of films, but really, sometimes things burned too slow. There are enough ~themes and issues~ in this film to fill boatloads of school papers, and I shan't bore you by analysing them here. You really do have to be in the mood to watch this or else there's really no point.

The way ~acts of importance~ were dealt with was also problematic. Significant events tended to be dropped on the viewer with all the subtlety of an anvil (bonus points if the music suddenly blares into life). Yet at the same time, the meaning of these events could be abstruse to the point where people's actions seem bizarre and confusing (again, this is not helped by the acting). For example, one of my biggest problems with the film was the whole premise that Yonoi would actually be
that obsessed with Celliers that quickly. I mean, I know it's Bowie and all, but come on, man, you have serious responsibilities and you should at least make an effort to hide your infatuation. Incidentally, those looking for some hot man-on-man action (because of course you are) will be disappointed; the most you'll get is some intense creeping on the part of Yonoi.

Despite its problems, there is something about the film that sucks you in; the morality issues and character relationships are gripping and there's a haunting mood that's oddly irresistible. I couldn't shake that darned lump in my throat after the last scene either.
The movie aims to be deep and profound, and it succeeds – to an extent. At the end of the day, its message is surrounded by too many flaws, and I can't help but think of the movie it could have been.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Book Review: Shaolin Burning

Title: Shaolin Burning 
Author: Ant Sang
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Graphic novel, Historical fantasy, Action

I don’t usually read much graphic novels. They’re usually really big and have more than 1 volume which puts me off. But I am glad I read Shaolin Burning because I really enjoyed it.

Shaolin Burning is a story about a young girl, Plum Blossom, who is trained in a new Kung Fu style. She is determined to prove herself by challenging the most dangerous man in China. Little does she know the history of this man and his link to the 6th monks who escaped the attack on the Shaolin Temple.

I am a big fan of Kung Fu having grown up watching martial art films, so I am familiar with the saying ‘all martial arts originate from Shaolin’. This graphic novel depicts exactly that and more.
It is full of fight scenes with graphics of the Shaolin Temple being burnt down and heads of innocent people being chopped off but there is something deeper than that in this novel.
I felt pity for the evil man in this story. He is a dangerous man on a path of revenge, but his actions leave him empty.

The graphics in this novel are a blend of ancient China and modern punk. The main characters are drawn to be tough and rough without the drag of ancient Chinese robes but the era is not lost with the background and subtle details on the clothing.

Be warned, the names and titles in this graphic novels are translated from Chinese so they may sound a little odd and long in English.

I really enjoyed this graphic novel. It was like watching a modern take on an old martial arts film. I recommend it to anyone who likes to watch martial arts films or likes reading action novels. I know I will be looking up Ant Sang, the author, to see what else he has done. 

Terri's Rating: 4/5

Monday, 16 July 2012

Book Review: Metro Winds

Title: Metro Winds
Author: Isobelle Carmody
Year Published: 2012
Genre: Literary fiction, Magic realism, Fantasy, Young Adult (?)

I've been a fan of the Obernewtyn Chronicles as well as the Legendsong for quite some time, so I picked up Isobelle Carmody's latest offering with an expectation of dreamy, immersive fantasy. This expectation was only partially met. Though all six stories contain fantastical elements, all are grounded in our world. Further, there is a more literary quality to the writing than I am used to for this author, which also meant I spent some time adjusting. 

The first story, “Metro Winds”, is about a young girl who moves to live with her aunt in the city and becomes drawn to the tunnels of the metro. The writing in this story is simply beautiful; there is a poetic, magical quality to it, almost as if it's for children. I found the ending unsatisfying on a conceptual level, but it's worth reading for the language alone.

Next comes “The Dove Game”, in which an Australian travels to Paris to meet a woman on behalf of a dead man. This is story reads a bit more like general fiction, with the fantasy elements blended into the psychological confusion of the protagonist. While it's a perfectly decent story, the style felt a little generic. I can't help but feel as if it could have been written by any number of literary short story writers and it didn't really grip me as much as the other stories did.

At a little under a hundred pages is “The Girl Who Could See The Wind”. Here a girl is taken to a foreign land by her mother and eventually embarks on a quest to find her lost sister. This was one of my favourite stories in the book, being one of those pleasantly sweet kind of stories with allusions to various fairy tales. The writing style is more similar to the author's other works too, which is to say it's easy to read, dream-like and evocative. As a side note, (impliedly) indigenous Australians are portrayed in this story as spiritual people connected to the land, and I for one cannot decide whether this was respectful or cliched or both or neither.

I found the fourth story, “The Stranger”, to be the book's weakest. It's about a scriptwriter who travels to Greece and meets a strange woman. While the narrator's voice was novel (for example, how he sees reality as if it was shot as a movie), this alone was not enough to sustain my interest the whole way. It's alright, but not much happens for most of the story and I was constantly counting how many pages of it I had left.

The Wolf Prince” was the other favourite of mine. It's the longest story of the collection and it involves a cursed faerie prince who must hunt a princess in order to save himself. It's told from the point of view of the queen who herself was hunted as a girl. The style is similar to the third story, albeit the fantasy here is front and centre. Again, fairy tales are inventively woven into the story, itself steeped with richness. It's a truly lovely read.

The last story is “The Man Who Lost His Shadow”, and involves the eponymous hero searching for his shadow in an unnamed European country. It's stark and strangely refreshing after the previous story, and the absurd notion of losing a shadow is treated is treated with a kind of frank practicality. The style is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Carey.

All the stories are quite varied – in style, tone and narrative. I personally found this jarring when reading them all one after the other; it might help if you think of the stories as being written by different authors, so you know to expect something different each time.

Still, despite the differences, common threads run through all the stories: the idea of a quest and the sense that a different world sits entwined with our own. Australia or Australians also feature in an express or implied manner, which adds another flavour to the tales.

Basically, if you're looking for a pure fantasy kick, you can just read “The Girl Who Could See The Wind” and “The Wolf Prince”. The others have a more ~literary~ general fiction kind of feel to them. All are well written. That said, while I was fine with reading it, there were also many times that I felt no compulsion to pick the book up again after having put it down. The author sets the bar so high with some stories that others seem lacking by comparison.

I've seen this book shelved in the YA section, but I would only recommend it to older teens or adults.

As a collection,
Metro Winds feels a little patchy to me, though I admit this may be because I started the book with certain expectations. It's worth a shot if you're into literary fiction with a dash of magic. However, if you just want something similar to Carmody's fantasy series, then I'd just read the the odd-numbered stories.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Book Review: Scarecrow Series

Title: Scarecrow Series
Author: Matthew Reilly
Year Published: 1998 - 2011
Genre: Action, Thriller
Scarecrow series:
  • Ice Station
  • Area 7
  • Scarecrow
  • Hell Island
  • Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves 

Before I start, I just want everyone to know that all these books can be read as standalones. But I recommend reading Ice Station first in case you enjoy the book and want to continue reading.

This series is based on a Marine by the name of Shane Schofield, call sign Scarecrow. It follows his missions and adventures which include:

Ice Station – Lieutenant Shane Schofield is introduced. He is sent to the arctic to secure an amazing discover under 100 million year old layer of ice

Area 7 - Schofield accompanies the President of the United States to a secret base were hostile forces await

Scarecrow - Schofield’s own head is on the line when a group of international bounty hunters search him out to kill him, the bounty being $20 million

Hell Island – four special force units, one lead by Schofield, are sent to an mysterious island where an experiment has gone horrible wrong

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves – a group of terrorists and fugitives, who call themselves the Army of Thieves take over an abandoned base in the Arctic and threaten to re-activate a weapon powerful enough to wipe out half the world. Schofield is sent to stop the Army before it’s too late

My first thought when writing this review was: these books are AWESOME! They are action-packed!!! Gun slinging, hungry crazy polar bear tearing, bombs blowing AWESOME!!! Please excuse my excitement. As you can see I really enjoyed this series.   
From start to finish, you will be on the edge of your seat, holding your breath wondering what will happen next! I mean that for all 5 books.

(Ok, I admit I’m a big Mathew Reilly fan.)

Matthew Reilly writes with the sole intention of entertaining, and entertain he does. Every turn of the page you will be wondering how our hero gets out of this one. And when you get the answer, you will think “how is that possible?”, then reality hits, “it’s a book, that was cool, who cares if it’s possible or not.”

What I love about Matthew Reilly is, as an author he can translate complicated locations or items into more simple terms without them losing their integrity.
Example: a gigantic complex base. There will be a simple diagram of the base at the front of the chapter for you to use as a reference. The diagrams are simple enough to understand and do not compensate for the description written in the book.
When reading an action novel, there may be times when you lose track of where the characters are. These diagrams will help tremendously. It helped me a lot since I have the “memory of a gold fish” according to some friends of mine.

I’ve read some negative reviews on these novels. Most are about the “depth” of the books. It is an action/thriller novel.” Not a "dramatic family story expanding over 6 decades.” So don’t expect something emotional to change in you. Matthew Reilly does over use italics and exclamation marks but I believe it helps with the emphasis of every action and urgency.
Sure, we all know the hero will survive. Sure, we all know the hero will always save the world, but isn’t the fun part, the journey of it? Trust me, this journey is worth taking.
So I recommend this series to anyone who loves an action-packed adventure. If you’re into “dramatic family stories expanding over 6 decades” then I still say give it a try. You never know. You might want more after finishing the first book.

Just remember to breathe.

Terri's rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Book Review: Shade Fright

Title: Shade Fright (A Valerie Stevens novel)
Author: Sean Cummings
Year Published: 2010
Genre: Urban Fantasy

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” the saying goes. I did the exact opposite. I took one look at the comic book design cover and went for it. Can you blame me?

So this story follows Valerie Stevens who was born with a unique gift to see the preternatural world. She works for the Canadian Government who sends her to locate things or people from the supernatural world.

 In this first Valerie Stevens novel she gathers the help of her zombie best friend and the ghost of a former Prime Minister of Canada to... you guessed it, save the world.

There are many books based on characters that see the supernatural and happen to be a P.I. Even though Valerie works for the Government, she’s still an investigator of some sort.
So what makes this book appealing (besides from the cover) is the normal girl Valerie. She’s not your typical “I do not remember my past, all I know is I have powers” female character, or your “depressed vampire that wears black leather and heavy eye liner”. She is a civil servant that earns her money and pay taxes just like the next person. A person you can relate to if you minus the whole seeing the dead thing.

As the first of the Valerie Stevens Novel, it does a good job introducing the characters. It gives a solid understanding of each of them so they can move forward to the next novels.

However, I wasn’t a fan of the plot/problem Valerie had to solve. For example, Valerie had to go back to the farm (the first crime scene) 3 times before finding the truth. A lot of her information was given to her rather than her finding out. Because of this, I lost interest half way through the book. It did not make me believe Valarie was good at her job even though according to the book, she’s been doing it for awhile. She’s also not a physical fighter, more of a witch, or what she calls herself, an alchemist.

I did enjoy the little time travel and the perfect balance of romance in this book. The romance is just enough for the reader to understand the position the characters are in and enough not to overflow the actual story line. Also there is no cliff hanger at the end so readers can read this book separately rather than in a series form.

If you’re looking for a light urban fantasy book, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for something dark, you might want to give this a miss. But I expect the following novels will get darker and we will see Valerie’s power improve.

The next book to the Valerie Stevens novel is Funeral Pallor.

Terri's Rating: 2/5