Monday, 26 November 2012

Movie Review: Breaking Dawn Part 2

Title: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
Director: Bill Condon
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 115 minutes
Classification: PG-13
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Romance

In the final instalment of the Twilight series, we say goodbye to Jacob's abs, Edward's sparkles and Bella's... Bella. At this point, no one's going into this film expecting cinematic brilliance, and indeed you'd be wasting your money if you had hoped this film would be “good”. For “fans”, of which I am one, Breaking Dawn Part 2 holds a number of delights/horrors; there's a big battle sequence, creepily CG'd Renesmee and Aro's laugh to look forward to. All in all, the quality here is fairly similar to the previous movies, and after four others, Breaking Dawn Part 2 gives us a sweet finish to the whole ordeal.

Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011) ended with Bella (Kristen Stewart) being turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson) after almost dying giving birth to human/vampire hybrid demon child Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy). We also saw Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the loser of the love triangle, “imprint” on Renesmee (kind of like falling in love, but without the creepiness, honest, because he'd never do anything like that at least not until she's legal).

In Breaking Dawn Part 2, Bella becomes an awesome vampire filled with awesome (and Kristen Stewart does look good in this movie, if you're into that), and then there's some stuff about not-telling her father, and some stuff. A vampire sees Renesmee and thinks she's a vampire, and since making children vampires is illegal, said vampire runs off to report the “crime” to the Volturi (powerful Italian vampires). As the Volturi are coming, the Cullen family recruit a bunch of X-men (only some of whom are racially stereotyped) to act as “witnesses” to prove their innocence.

The plot is pretty ridiculous and the first half or so of the movie is incredibly boring. It doesn't seem like anything is really happening, just a bunch of people standing around having conversations and it drags. Yet incredibly, it also feels rushed; we jump from scene to scene and Bella's narration is used to bridge them in a way that feels like lazy storytelling. At least the scenery looks good. I guess.

And then there's Renesmee.

(Now, there has been many an internet rant about the issues here, so I'll just stick to the movie problems.)

First, there's the whole skeevy imprinting thing mentioned above. Bella's outrage upon discovering it is pretty much token and it's the only objection that comes up in the movie (hey, it's what happens in the book). On the plus side, Jacob and Renesmee's relationship is never overtly depicted as “romantic”, unless you count the flash-fowards and some meaningful looks shared between the two that can so easily be (mis)interpreted (in my cinema, there were groans and awkward laughter during these moments, so there you go).

Second, Mackenzie Foy's face is CG'd on every actress that plays fast-growing Renesmee. And it's like.... why? Why would you do this? Why? It was creepy as hell, especially since it wasn't done very well (picture a CG-d face, semi-floating on another head, drifting slightly – just slightly – to give the impression of occasional no-chin and uncanny valley realness). Considering how well they CG'd Bella during her pregnancy and how people aren't idiots and can tell when a character is the same character despite changing actors, I just don't understand. On the plus side, it was so off-putting that it kept me awake throughout the sluggish first half.

The creepiness isn't helped by the fact that Renesmee has no discernible personality. I suppose this isn't really her fault: she doesn't really get to do anything and is often just in the background. The way she “communicates” - that is, by touching people and flashing images in their minds – comes across as some kind of brainwashing technique, and to me, she could've just as easily been an innocent child as an evil demonic creature in the guise of an innocent child. But hey, this made me enjoy the film more rather than less.

So things pick up in the last part, when the Cullens & co. confront the Volturi and their cronies. If you've read the book, you'll know how anticlimactic the climax is, and the movie manages to put a twist on it that is, dare I say, rather clever. Though it's not as epic as its soundtrack would lead you to believe, it is action-packed and unexpectedly violent. I was riveted the whole way through. It's easily the best part of the movie, barring Aro's strange laugh (see below), and for me it was totally worth watching the first half to get to this.

I can't see this movie being enjoyable for someone who isn't invested one way or another in the Twilight franchise. If you're not a fan, don't bother; if you are fan, you'll be seeing this film regardless of its reviews. Breaking Dawn Part 2 is arguably the best of the lot, but that's not saying too much. The story is what it is, the acting is so-so and the quality of the CG varies. Still, I was surprised by the whole battle sequence and I must admit that the movie overall was pretty entertaining, even if for the wrong reasons. It's certainly not a great series of films, but I couldn't help but feel a pang of nostalgia when the credits rolled, reminding us that non-Charlie humans once existed in the Twi-verse. And now, as the franchise comes to a close, everyone has the happy ending they were waiting for.

Alex's Rating: 3/5
(for non-fans, probably 2/5)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Book Review: Runemarks

Title: Runemarks
Author: Joanne Harris
Year Published: 2007
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Marked by a rune on her hand, Maddy Smith has been shunned by the villagers of Malbry for all her life. As a child, she finds a friend in the traveller One-Eye, an Outlander who teaches her to use magic – a dangerous art connected to the old gods and condemned by the Order. Now One-Eye asks fourteen-year-old Maddy a favour: to go into World Below and retrieve a mysterious object. Little does Maddy know that there are others after it too, and so her great adventure begins. The plot is very intricate and to reveal more would be to spoil it.

Set five hundred years after the End of the World, the novel draws heavily from Norse mythology (though whether it's a fresh take or a bastardisation of the source material depends on your tastes). In fact, so much of the mythology is appropriated that it can be difficult to follow, hence the included maps and list of characters. I myself found it a bit overwhelming, despite having some familiarity with the tales (translation: the main thing I remember is that Loki once turned into a lady-horse and did it with a man-horse and then gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse – but this particular story isn't included in Runemarks). The narrative often seems to progress rather slowly, mired by the history of its setting. It's worth getting through though as the book only gets better the further you read.

The world and magic system are interesting and the characters work well as an ensemble, but what you'd really read this book for is the plot. There are many different characters with many different motivations and it was interesting to see how their plot-lines intertwined with one another. Best of all is the adventure. There is always something happening and new places to be explored. The journey to a certain place (near the end of the book) was particularly gripping, taking a darker turn than I had anticipated. Though it's an epic tale that fits in one book, not everything is completely tied up and there is a sequel, Runelight.

Though I was distracted by the abundance of semicolons early on, the writing itself is generally smooth and easy to read. I found that I wasn't particularly invested in the (early mentioned) history of the world to begin with, since it was quite dense and since I didn't quite care for anything or anyone yet. On this note, the shortness of the chapters was a real help to me in getting me through the history-heavy parts, making them seem less daunting. Another problem I had was in the frequent shifts in point of view (which itself was occasionally omniscient but mostly read like third person limited) – shifts which sometimes happened between paragraphs. There were two or three times I wasn't sure whose head I was in, and these moments took me out of the story and were jarring enough to leave an impression. This problem also disappeared as I got near the end.

Runemarks is a good YA fantasy, especially for those who want something epic in scope but one book in length. It was hard for me to get into at first, but I was glad I kept reading. While the world-building elements can be quite heavy-handed at times, these elements are woven into the story and the book certainly delivers on the adventure front. The way the plot wraps up is also very satisfying.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Book Review: Florence & Giles

Title: Florence & Giles
Author: John Harding
Published date: 2010
Genre: Historic, Gothic, Horror

The cover of Florence & Giles resembles the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Just like the poem, it successfully delivers the same eerie gothic vibe to the reader.

1891. In a remote New England mansion lives 12 year old Florence and her younger brother Giles. Florence spends her time reading in secret, against her uncles’ will. At night she sleep walks the dark old corridors and has a recurring dream where a mysterious woman threatens her younger brother.
What thought to be dream becomes a reality to Florence who begins to witness strange phenomena when the children’s second governess, replacing the first who died a terrible death, arrives. She becomes certain the mysterious woman in her dream is the new governess and must find a way to protect her brother from harm.

The best word to describe Florence & Giles is eerie. It flows throughout and makes friends with horror. This book is narrated by Florence. The author did well in translating a protective 12 year old thoughts and actions into words. Simple language is used with made up words only a 12 year old would create.

The first couple of chapters explain the closeness of the siblings and Florence's talent for hiding when reading. The eeriness does not start till Florence’s dream is explain by the appearance of the new governess. Florence starts to see things she can’t explain and no one will believe her.

This novel is a good read. It has the perfect mixture of horror without gruesomeness. It is much more than a straight forward child verse evil governess.
From the beginning, there is no doubt the governess is hiding something but nothing out of the supernatural. Nothing to fear. But the further I read, the more the governess scares me.
There is a battle between Florence and the Governess, good versus evil until the end. The end is when everything makes sense. It explains why the governess is there, why she wants to harm Giles and why Florence is the only one who sees the truth.

The end is when the horror is realized and is, I think the scariest part of the novel. Then again I don’t read horror or gothic books. I get scared easily when it comes to the supernatural. There is nothing bad I can say about this novel. The pace was perfect, the characters written well and the depth of Florence belief is solid.

Florence & Giles is worth a read. It is a horror, gothic novel and will scare you and maybe even make you see things in the mirror that are not really there (or are they?). The twist in this novel might be typical, but it is still captivating enough to hold attention and provide indication that horror comes in different forms. 
A must read.

Terri's Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book Review: The Last Dragonslayer

Title: The Last Dragonslayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
Year Published: 2010
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult

Jennifer Strange is the fifteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. Though once a noble calling, magic has gradually been fading from the Ununited Kingdoms and its practitioners are now reduced to delivering pizza and unblocking drains. Life is not easy for Jennifer: the use of magic is heavily regulated, sorcerers are a volatile lot and work is hard to come by. But it's only when a sudden resurgence of magic coincides with a prophecy of the death of the last dragon that the trouble really starts.

The Last Dragonslayer is a delightful read; it's fun, fast and doesn't take itself too seriously. There is a generous dose of humour throughout the book and I found myself rereading sentences at times out of pure glee. Literary and scientific allusions fly thick and fast and modern life is satirised, including big business and the cult of celebrity. For this reason, adults can find much to enjoy in this book, despite it being written to a younger audience. Fforde's brand of funny may be a bit “cute” for some, but I found it right up my alley.

The world is like an alternative version of ours and its history and magic system are quite detailed and interesting. Unfortunately, this results in a few info-dump/talking heads scenarios, in which things that you might have guessed are explained quite thoroughly and the action is slowed right down (hopefully, this means that sequels The Song of the Quarkbeast and The Return of Shandar will reap the benefits of past exposition). And yet despite this extensive world-building, I found that there were sometimes gaps in the descriptions – for example, in one scene, I had assumed the only people present were Jennifer and the King's men until a lady suddenly faints; in another I spent most of the time wondering where the Quarkbeast had got to. These are very minor complaints though, quite possibly caused by my own lack of imagination.

Given how early the dragon stuff is mentioned, I was impatient for the plot to progress more quickly than it did. Can't say I really minded though, since I enjoyed it the whole way through. For some reason, I had expected something a bit more epic, which this really isn't. It's more of a light-hearted adventure, best read for its prose and its quirks, rather than the plot as such.

Needless to say, I really liked this book; the world and its magic were peculiar in a clever yet mundane way and I thought it was really quite funny (though of course, humour is subjective and Fforde's may just be the sort to set your teeth on edge). It's easy to read and accessible to anyone. Recommended for fans of Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett and anyone looking for a light and witty read.

Alex's Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Book Review: Coastliners

Title: Coastliners
Author: Joanne Harris
Year Published: 2002
Genre: General and literary fiction, Drama

Following the death of her mother, Mado returns to her childhood home in Le Devin, a tiny island off the French coast. After ten years away, she finds that the generations-old rivalry between the two island communities - Les Salants and La Houssinière - remains strong. Morale is low in Les Salants, for it has suffered repeated floods while La Houssinière thrives with growing tourism. Cue a mysterious stranger, plans to revive Les Salants and some father-daughter tensions and the stage is set for drama.

The evocative atmosphere is the most memorable aspect of the book. Descriptions of the dunes, the beach and island life suffuse the novel and you get a great sense of place. Strangely and disappointingly, while Mado is a painter, there are virtually no descriptions of her craft. If you've read Chocolat (which in my opinion is better), you'll have an idea of what you’re in for. Like Chocolat, the male love interest is a handyman drifter character and you have a small community whose personal dramas give meat to the main plot.

Many scenes in the book are just comprised of various conversations between the villagers. They're all pretty much introduced at once, and though it's hard to keep track of them initially, you catch on. Le Devin is inhabited with many colourful personalities, and for me, they walked the line between flawed-yet-loveable characters and flat stereotyped placeholders (thankfully I still liked them). The main character, Mado, is largely easy to relate to, but sometimes her feelings and motivations are left kind of vague, which is vaguely frustrating. Whether you like the characters will be a fairly subjective matter, albeit one which contributes greatly to whether you'll enjoy the novel.

I had thought this would be a breezy kind of read, but it's actually the kind of book where everything just plods along until the end, when suddenly things happen. The ending feels rushed, as if the author suddenly realised she had to tie up all the family drama plotlines and had only a limited number of pages in which to do so. All those "reveals" made me feel like I was reading a mystery, which maybe this was. While things are ~resolved~, I wasn't completely satisfied as the outcome seemed like a bit of a cop-out; further, I would have liked certain aspects, such as Mado's relationship with her father, explored in greater depth. The rushed ending makes me disinclined to accept that it's ~supposed to be ambiguous~.

Coastliners is the kind of book you'd read when you're looking for something comfortable and easy, something relaxing to pass the time. The writing is smooth and the environment appealing. While the plot and the characters can feel somewhat shallow at times, the entire thing is suffused with a great deal of charm, making it a pleasant experience overall.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5