Archive for July, 2010

BOOK: The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)

July 31, 2010

Vampire books, as you may have noticed, seem to have recently replaced zombie books as All The Rage.  I have to confess, though, that I’ve always found vampires kind of lame.  I mean, sure, Buffy was awesome, Let the Right One In was brilliant (the film, and also to a lesser extent the novel), but in general, I find vampires a bit on the posh side.  Give me a good filthy brain-eater over a blood-sucker, any ol’ day of the week.

That said, when I heard that Justin Cronin, considered a “literary” writer of sorts, had published the first book in a planned vamp series and unleashed a massive bidding war over it, I was definitely intrigued.  A friend had an advanced reader’s copy and loaned it to me a few weeks ago, and it was every bit as entertaining as I hoped it would be.

To be completely honest, however, I still found The Passage somewhat dissatisfying overall, and after finishing it, also found myself wondering what all the hoopla was about.  I will explain why in a moment.

This 700+ page novel, the first in a proposed trilogy, spends the first 150-or-so pages set in the near future, when acts of terrorism on U.S. soil have increased, the cost of gas has exploded, and people are even more wonky from all the stresses of the world than they are now.  When a medical researcher stumbles across a virus in a South American jungle that appears to heal wounds and cure diseases, he thinks he’s come up with the answer to mortality; a bug that heals all bugs:  eternal life.  But once the military gets wind of its unfortunate side effects — it turns people into super-fast, super-aggressive killing machines — they usurp the project in hopes of creating a force of invincible super-soldiers that might put an end, at last, to war.  Go figure.

BRILLIANTLY (<– sarcasm), they decide the best human subjects for testing the virus on are death row inmates.  Their reasoning is that nobody will miss them.  MY reasoning is that it’s probably not the greatest idea in the world to make sociopaths invincible.  As it turns out, I am right about this.  It’s a shame I was not consulted first.  (Put me on speed dial already, USAMRID.)

The experiment begins with twelve subjects but, as you’d expect only 150 pages into a 700+ page novel, things don’t go as planned.  Soon all twelve are on the loose and it’s not much longer before the human population, at least in the U.S. (we don’t know about the rest of the world — yet), has been almost completely wiped out.

Cut fast to a hundred years in the future, where a group of about 90 survivors have built themselves a fortress and managed to keep the infected out by keeping the lights on 24/7 (vampires, as we all know, die in the light; the rest of the usual lore is somewhat refreshingly missing from this novel.  Much appreciated, Mr. C.).

Increasing problems at their wind-based power plant threaten that safety measure though, and when it’s determined that the lights are going to go out for good in a few months, a band of seven or so survivors, all close friends,  form a posse, leave the fort, and head off into the world to try to find out what else is out there — other fortresses, other survivors, somewhere to move that’s safe, something, anything, anything.  Whatever, we’ll take it.

Joining the posse is a little girl named Amy, who had wandered into the fort several weeks prior and bonded strongly with our protagonist, a somewhat dull fellow (sorry, but true) named Peter.  Peter takes on the role of Amy’s protector, despite the protestations of Alicia, the top fighter at the fort, and the source of a lot of long-term sexual tension for Peter.

Unbeknownst at first to the group, though, Amy was also exposed to the virus 100 years ago and, as a result, she hasn’t aged a day since.  But the other thing she hasn’t done is turn into a monster — hey, what gives, right?  It soon becomes clear that Amy has a mystical sort of connection to the original twelve  apostles.  She’s able, somewhat, both to summon and to control them, a skill Peter soon realizes could be used to take the twelve out, which in turn would neutralize the rest (I wasn’t clear on just how, but it looks like Cronin will have another 1400 pages to do some ‘splaining — I can wait).

It’s a good story, definitely.  It’s extremely entertaining and though I found myself a little impatient in the middle, I never got tired of reading it.  That said, The Passage has a lot of problems, and many of them were things I would’ve expected a good editor to catch and hammer out.  Is this the hazard of too much excitement on the publishing world’s part, I wonder?  Nobody wanted to tinker much with such a hot commodity?

Whatever the reason, the first thing I would’ve done was flesh out the beginning.  I would’ve liked it if the opening section — that first 150 pages that went lightly into the origin of the virus and the vampires — were much longer.  Say, half the book.  For one thing, we’re introduced to a bunch of characters I really liked in that section (Agent Wolgast, for example), almost all of whom are gone by page 151.  And for another, there’s a whole hundred years missing from the story.  I’m sure a lot of very interesting things happened during those hundred years, and I, for one, would like to know what they were.

Additionally, I have to ask:  why the fuss, publishing world?  The rest of this  novel is pretty standard action/adventure stuff; none of this story is terribly original, which was kind of a surprise given all the dramatics.  The fortress-type stuff reminded me of things like Waterworld (my apologies), where people have been forced to return to primitive weapons and draconian rules in order to maintain order (for example, in the fort, if you break a rule, you’re thrown out on your ass as a vamp snack, no second chances).  The characters were all stereotypes, as well — the tough woman with the secretly soft heart, the mystical little girl who will save the world, the wise old bird who is infuriatingly cryptic, etc. — and their relationships were pretty by-the-book as well.   All in all, I felt like I’d seen 99% of this novel 99 times before, which would’ve been fine, really, had the writing been mind-blowingly awesome.  But it’s just mediocre, and frequently struck me as clumsy and rushed.  This does not bode well for parts two and three.

ALL THAT ASIDE, however, the vampires were super cool, no denying it.  They’re ugly monsters who move lightning fast and tear people to shreds before you can say, “Hey, did you hear something?”  They were kind of scary, in fact, which is not something I say very often, especially when it comes to novels.

Even better, there’s absolutely nooooooooo sparkling in this book whatsoever.  No handsome, troubled creatures of the night, making all the chicks swoon with their maudlin mopings and furrowed brows.  There is only uncontrollable blood-thirst with the extremely rare glimpse of something still painfully human underneath.  These were good vampires.  By which I mean: really, really BAD vampires.

The other thing I liked was that we rarely “see” the vamps to begin with, something I always appreciate in a monster story.  All too often, the creatures in these types of tales take front-and-center, their killings too.  But it’s far more unnerving when they’re off skulking in the shadows for the readers as well as  for the characters, all of us squinting off to the tree line watching for signs of motion.  I was glad Cronin seemed to recognize this himself.  And I’ll tell you what, there were a few nights when I was up way past my bedtime while reading this book, unwilling to turn the light off until I was at a section not quite so hair-raising — a very good sign in a summer read.

And really, that’s exactly what this book is — a big, fat “beach book.”  If you come into it looking for a good time — light entertainment and serious fun — I think you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for here.  If you come into it looking for literary writing (no), realistic and intense characters/relationships (not really), or a new, exciting twist on an old story (not so much), though, you will likely find naught but disappointment.

Personally, I can’t wait for book two, and I hope it comes out at about this same time next year, so I have another great summertime week of absolute fun.  Vampires won’t eat you if you’re in the sun, after all.  Let’s not unleash them in December, Random House, if you don’t mind.

Highly recommended to fans of creature features, definitely, but this is not going to be a book that offers much of interest to general fiction readers (unlike, for example, the film/book Let the Right One In, which I think is a much weightier story that would appeal to literary lovers as well as vampire geeks).

Have you read this one yet?  If so, let me know what you thought in the comments?  Let’s talk.  Especially about that ending.  (Note to those who haven’t read it, that means there may be spoilers in the comments, yo!)

[HORROR]

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BOOK: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)

July 28, 2010

This book tried hard to market itself as a ghost story, with a spooky front cover and a back-jacket blurb about a haunting.  But though I usually adore ghost stories, the ghostly elements of this novel just cluttered it up, turning what otherwise might’ve been a great book into simply a good one.

The story focuses on the Ayres family, wealthy landowners in the small English village of Warwickshire.  The family has lived in their grand estate house, Hundred Halls, for centuries, and every year, they’ve thrown an enormous party for the entire village, in part as a way to maintain good will with the villagers, most of whom are  hard-working poor people.

But when World War II comes and goes, it takes Mr. Ayres with it, leaving the only remaining Ayres male, his young son Rod, disabled.  Unable to maintain all the land, the family fortune, and with it Hundred Halls, begins to crumble.

One of the locals who attended the Ayres’s lavish parties as a child — his mother was a servant at Hundred Halls — grew up to become the town doctor.  Now, in the late 1940’s, Dr. Faraday is hired as the family’s[primary care physician.  The more time he spends with the three remaining Ayreses, the more he begins to like them, especially Mrs. Ayres and her daughter, Caroline.  Rod also befriends Faraday, though hesitantly at first, and eventually even accepts the doctor’s offer to help with his chronic pain.

Something about Faraday’s interactions with them seems to revitalize the family a bit.  For years, they’ve kept to themselves, the subjects of a lot of speculation and town gossip, and now Faraday has let some of the light back in.  Deciding it’s time Caroline got out more, Mrs. Ayres throws the first party Hundred Halls has seen in years.  This will be their great comeback.  Life’s pickin’ up.  This is gonna be good.  So, so good.

Orrrrrr not.  The party starts off kind of awkward, the guests taken aback by the decrepitude of the once great estate.  But it takes a turn to outright awful when suddenly the Ayres family dog viciously attacks a little girl — seemingly unprovoked.  The town and the family once again estrange themselves from each other, despite Faraday’s efforts to settle things down, and Mrs. Ayres slowly sinks back into a deep, dark funk.

Slowly, and I mean reallllly slowly, we begin to learn that Hundred Halls is haunted.  Rod alerts Faraday to it first, describing his own bizarre experiences the night of the fateful party.  But instead of believing him, Faraday assumes the stress of Hundred Halls has finally driven him crazy.  Only then the maid, Betsy, starts to see things too.  And finally Caroline.  Eventually, the identity of the ghost is revealed to us, as well as its tie to the decline of the once-great Ayres family.

The problem is, this ghost story is so minor an element for the first 3/4ths of the novel that it felt to me more like an underdeveloped afterthought tossed in there in an attempt to re-genre the novel into something “sexier” than “general fiction.”  I’m sure that’s not what happened, of course — Waters hardly needs to resort to gimmicks to sell books at this point.  But the ghost story was disappointingly unoriginal, and mostly just kept getting in the narrative’s way.

What WAS good about the book, and what I wish had been its sole focus, were the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the slow-burning, hesitant affection between Faraday and Caroline, two adults too smart for their own social good, lonely and unexperienced in the ways of romance.  Waters is a great inventor of people — her characters are always so real, so full, and these two were no exception.  The story of a doctor from humble beginnings who brought a wealthy, sleeping family back to life would’ve been a great book.  Tossing in this ghost hoohah?  Waters, what were you thinking?

Despite this flaw, though, I did enjoy reading The Little Stranger.  I’m a big fan of Waters’s other novels and her writing here, if not her storytelling, is as sharp and engaging as always.  If you’re new to her work, though, skip this one for now and dive into the incredible world of Fingersmith instead.  That one’s great, no two bones.

[FICTION]

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MOVIE: Despicable Me (2010)

July 25, 2010

Well, okay.  It’s no Pixar movie, that’s for sure.   And while I didn’t hate it, I was pretty disappointed by this one overall.

Despicable Me is a predictable, extremely-cheesy animated film is about a dastardly villain, Gru (voiced by Steve Carell and oddly looking a lot like him at times), who is about to lose all his villainous funding if he doesn’t commit the theft of the century.  His position as the baddest bad guy on Earth is being threatened by a young up-and-comer named Vector — a nerd turned evil whose recent theft of the Great Pyramid has the entire world abuzz.

Gru decides the best way to reestablish himself as Nemesis of the Year is to steal a shrink ray gun currently being developed by a nameless Asian government, and then use it to shrink and then steal the moon.  But when Vector gets his hands on the gun first, Gru must find a way to get inside his heavily armed fortress to steal it back.

He decides the best way in is through three little girls who have been roaming the neighborhood selling cookies for their orphanage.  So, he disguises himself as a dentist and adopts the trio of pawns.  The older girl, Margot, is a bit suspicious, but the other two, especially the little one, Agnes, fall head-over-heels for Gru immediately.  And, of course, though he tries to resist their precious charms, he’s no match for the adorableness of children, and it’s not long before the foursome is a family and Gru decides to give up his life of crime for a life of puppies and rainbows instead.

Pixar movies (like the recent Toy Story 3, which I loved) somehow always manage to be extremely satisfying for me as an adult, while still remaining completely successful for kids.  The writing is always strong, the stories always entertaining, the characters usually well-developed, the jokes a good mix of dumb and clever.  This one, not so much.  I found myself getting impatient with it, in part because it has a lot of unnecessary “cute” filler scenes (the whole little-yellow-guys-in-supermarket scene = thumb-twiddler), but also because the story is one I feel like I’ve seen a thousand times.  It brought nothing new to the table, not even in terms of the characters’ cartoon technology.   With all the possibilities animation opens up to you, the best you’ve got is a freeze ray?  A shrink ray?  A squid gun?   Yawn.

I should probably also confess that the timing of my viewing of this film may have impacted my experience of it as well.  I saw it right after I’d spent an hour listening to a trusted confidant tell me the obvious solution to all my problems is having a baby.  I didn’t really appreciate this, to be honest.  And before I had a chance to move past it, suddenly there was Steve Carell essentially telling me the same damn thing.

Hey, guess what?  Not so much, Steve Carell.

I think kids will really enjoy this one, don’t get me wrong.  It’s funny in a good kid-humor kind of way, it’s got some entertaining little yellow dorky creatures, the villains blow lots of stuff up, etc.  But adults?  I don’t know.

It’s no Pixar movie.  That’s for sure.

[Pre-queue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Animation, Kids
Cast:  Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Fisher, Kristen Wiig, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett

MOVIE: Inception (2010)

July 23, 2010

Man, this is going to be a hard review to write.  Why?  Because A) I don’t want to tell you too much about this movie — I think the less you know, the more thrilling your experience with it will be, and B) it was so incredibly awesome, I’m not sure I can do it justice.  Can I just sum the whole thing up with a 64-point boldface “AWESOME!”?  Okay, maybe not.

I was, to be honest, a little wary of seeing Inception.  Several of the reviews I read before I went last weekend led me to believe it was going to be really hard to follow, which made me kind of nervous.  I hate feeling stupid in movies (Syriana! *shakes fist at sky*), even though I love being challenged to think and think hard.  There’s a fine line between those two things sometimes, though, and I was a bit concerned this one might cross it.  I don’t mind the type of confusion or complexity that makes you spend three hours later comparing your theories with those of your friends, but I don’t want to feel LOST.  Know what I mean?

Yeah, I thought you might.

I should’ve known better than to worry about that here, though.  Christopher Nolan is the same filmmaker who brought us Memento, after all, another extremely complex movie that challenges you to think but never leaves you confused for long.  When I first saw Memento in theaters (back in 2000), it blew my mind — how smart, how well-written, how amazing you could tell a story like that (backwards!) without ever once losing your audience.  That takes real talent, both with the script and the filmmaking, and it’s exhibited here with equal mastery.

I’m going to keep my description of Inception‘s plot relatively short, and I promise I won’t spoil anything important without warning you first.  The less you know going in, the more fun you’ll have, is my thinking on this one.

In short, it’s about a team of thieves who have developed a process that, through the use of a device they carry around in a suitcase, lets them get inside people’s dreams and manipulate them from inside their own sleepy heads.  Other people hire them to steal corporate secrets — a process they call “extraction.”  The team kidnaps the target, hooks themselves and their subject up to the machine, and then slips into the subject’s dreamscapes, modifying them in such a way that the subject eventually leads them right to the information they seek.

For the most part, the process has been remarkably successful.  But when they botch a job for a huge corporation, the company puts a hit out on the team.   So, when a Japanese big-wig named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to get the evil corporation off their backs in exchange for doing a job for him, the team leader, Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) can’t refuse.

The new job, though, is going to be harder than anything else Cobb has ever done.  Because it’s not an extraction this time — it’s an “inception.”  Saito wants Cobb and his team to break into the dreams of the son of one of the wealthiest men in the world and plant an idea in the son’s head.  He wants Cobb to make the son do something — I won’t say what — and he wants the son to do it believing it was his own idea.

To pull this off, Cobb will have to delve into multiple dreams-within-dreams — not a concept I can explain clearly without ruining some of the most fascinating elements of the film — and to construct and manipulate all those dreams, he’ll need a team that includes an architect (someone who can design the dream worlds and their stories), a forger (someone who can take on the identity of another person in a dream), and his most trustworthy friend and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is brilliant as usual here).

Every dream layer has its own unique setting, story, and time dimension, and every aspect of the plan must be pulled off perfectly or it’ll never work.

And I think that’s all I’m gonna say about the plot.  Aside from this:  I thought it was beyond brilliant.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way dreams work — I bet most people feel that way — and the thoughtfulness of this film’s approach to that subject completely blew my mind.   Dreams are cool; dreams within dreams within dreams triply so.  I thought the concept of the “totem” was likewise incredibly clever and it gave the entire film an extra layer of complexity, as well as a truly kick-ass ending (you’ll see what I mean when you get there).  I left this movie absolutely in awe.  I can’t wait to see it again (preferably with my mom).

There were a couple of things about Inception that kind of bothered me, though.  PLEASE NOTE: The rest of this review contains spoilers and probably ought to be read only by people who have already seen the film.  While I’m at it, it’s likely the comments on this post will also contain spoilers — look out!

Several critics have complained that it was hard to engage emotionally with the characters in this film, but this wasn’t something that stood out to me as a problem, possibly because there were few times when the characters weren’t being professionals, completely involved in their work, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for personal stories.

But Ellen Page’s character (the architect) seemed thrown into the mix just so we could have a young, pretty girl in the story, and she was incongruously empathic (for her age, anyway — I thought, anyway) about both the inception process and Cobb himself.   For much of the movie I was convinced there was going to be a twist that revealed her to be something other than what she seemed to be, in fact.   For example, that it might turn out that SHE was the one running an inception and she’d inserted herself into COBB’S dream in order to somehow manipulate him.  But when it didn’t go that way (not demonstrably, anyway) her intimacy with those two elements ended up not making sense to me.

Maybe it was Ellen Page’s acting — her facial expressions and tone — that made her seem “off” in this way to me, rather than the script itself.  But in any case, compared to the other actors in this movie, who were all amazing and completely believable (including Leo, though if he doesn’t stop frowning all the time, those eyebrow furrows are going to turn into the Grand Canyon), she stood out as the weak link.

The other complication, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just a thought-provoking one, was the film’s moral ambiguity.  It’s impossible not to root for Cobb and his team to succeed — we’re clearly meant to, and they’re funny, cool, and smart, so why not?  But it kept occurring to me that, in fact, they weren’t actually the GOOD guys.  They’re thieves putting people at risk for money (the extraction/inception process is dangerous for all those involved, including people not involved by choice).  I wasn’t sure how I ultimately felt about the inception, because they were targeting a young man, manipulating his complicated, painful feelings for his distant father, in order to help a super-rich dude destroy a major competitor.  Isn’t that cruel and wrong?

Then again, the outcome of that manipulation seemed extremely likely to be GOOD for the young man:  to improve his memories of his father, to restore some confidence in himself, and to free him from one ginormous burden of a legacy.  So, does that make it okay?

I don’t have an answer.  All I know is I can’t wait to see this one again, talk about it with others who have seen it, and spend a lot more time coming up with theories upon theories upon theories.  Triply so.  Hit the comments, yo.  Let’s chat.

[Pre-queue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Science Fiction
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas

MOVIE: Predators (2010)

July 17, 2010

Hey, guess what!  This movie doesn’t totally suck!  Will wonders never cease?  Oh, world of wonders, you amaze me so.

I’m not sure exactly what made me want to go see this film.  I’ve seen the original Predator, of course, and while I thought it was a pretty good sci-fi flick, it’s not one I’ve ever sought out again.  But something about the trailer for this one intrigued me.  I’m not sure just what it was, though.  Let me think.  What could it have been?  The special effects?  No. . .  The jungle setting?  Eh, not really. . . The. . . OH WAIT.  I KNOW.

The Adrien Brody!  Humina humina humina.  Despite his ridiculous nose (or possibly because of it — I’m still trying to figure that out), I find Brody insanely sexy, and the rest of the cast piqued my curiosity as well.  It’s a bunch of serious bad-asses (Laurence Fishburn, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov) plus. . . Topher Grace?  What the hell is Topher Grace doing in there?

Let’s find out, I said to myself this afternoon when I suddenly found myself downtown with two hours of free time and a twenty-dollar bill burning a hole in my pocket.

The plot of Predators reminded me right away of the sci-fi thriller The Cube, in that it’s about a random group of people with varying skill sets thrown into a dangerous situation and forced to work together to get out alive.  The bulk of the group here is made up of mercenaries and militaries — a soldier from Sierra Leone, one from Chechnya, a member of the Japanese mafia — but they all have different fighting skills.  And then there’s Grace, clearly the odd-man-out — a doctor, and not someone who seems particularly suited for jungle war.

As the group starts exploring the jungle, and themselves, they begin to realize what’s happened.  They’ve all been snatched and then dropped onto a distant planet to serve as entertainment for the aliens I’m just going to call the “Predators,” even though in this movie, that’s a term you could use to describe either team in the game.

As it turns out, the Predators have been capturing creatures from a variety of different worlds (though it seems to be predominantly humans) so they can hunt them for fun.  It’s The Most Dangerous Game, except that the predator this time is a Predator instead of just an advantaged member of the prey.

For the most part, I found this movie pretty successful.  It was the perfect flick for a lazy summer afternoon.  I was entertained, I laughed (not always on purpose, mind you — everything Brody says is hilariously cliché and his delivery is also sort of unintentionally comical as well.  Despite my affection for his various angles, I have to confess he’s not really much of an actor), and I had a good time watching it.  Is it a brilliant film?  Hell no.  Don’t be ridiculous.  And whatever you do, don’t get me started on the gravity issue (fine, you can have your alien planet with its breathable air and identical-to-Earth plants, but really?  You also want me to believe your alien planet has the same mass as Earth?  Stop it.).

But you know what?  Nevermind all that.  If you’re looking for a good summer popcorn flick and you like these sorts of explosiony, bloody, sci-fi monster things, you’ll have a pretty good time at this one, I think.  The aliens are cool AND the director’s first name is NIMROD, which means you get to start out with a laugh before the opening credits have even ended (sorry, Nimrod, but it can’t be helped, sir).  That’s always a plus too.

Recommended for anybody who likes dumb alien movies and/or Adrien Brody’s schnoz.

[Netflix it | View trailer]

Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Cast:  Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo

MOVIE: Toy Story 3 (2010)

July 15, 2010

You know what’s even better than Toy Story and Toy Story 2

TOY STORY 3.

That’s right, you heard me correctly:  far and away the best of the series.  How often does THAT happen with sequels?  Especially threequels?  I can’t think of a single one.  Not even Jaws 3-D, which holds a special Dennis Quaid-sized place in my heart.

This hilarious and delightful film takes us back to the world of our favorite pals, Woody, Buzz, Jessie (who I met earlier this year at Disneyland, by the way — see photo here.  She’s super sweet in person, I must say, though her head is bizarrely humongous), and the rest, as their owner Andy is preparing to head off for college, leaving the fate of his toys uncertain.

When a mix-up leaves everybody but Woody in a box destined for donation to a local daycare center, the adventure begins.  Will the gang get to stay together?  Will they be split apart?  Will they have to live the rest of their toy lives in a box in Andy’s attic?  Or worse, suffer the horrors of the Caterpillar Room at the daycare center, where the toddlers too young to know better beat and bash them around?

And, man, what’s up with that big fat purple bear guy anyway?  Take a ‘lude, dude.

Pixar movies never fail to impress the heck out of me.  Not only do they feature sharp writing,  gorgeous animation, and delightful characters, but they also brilliantly manage to work just as well for adults as they do for kids.  There was a joke in this film — I wish I could remember what it was — that only adults my age and older are going to get, for one thing.  And the bittersweet ending is something I think only adults are going to appreciate fully too.   You know, those of us who have grown up and left home.  Or, even more painfully, those of us who have kids who will be doing that someday themselves.  (For example, there’s a scene at the end where Andy’s mom stands next to him, surveying his now-empty room, and it reminded me of when my older brother left for college and my mother began to cry when she saw he’d made his bed before he left.  Awwwww!  Moms are the best. . .)

Little kids will laugh like crazy, get a little teared up at a few points perhaps, and root for the good guys.  Teenagers will snort and chuckle, maybe think a little about playing with their own dusty old toys one more time when they get home.  But adults — well, those of us who do this sort of thing anyway — are going to bawl their eyes out and hold their babies a little bit closer (or, in my case, my borrowed baby:  my sister’s 4 year-old son Luke, who was  snuggled up in my lap the whole time.  Don’t be fooled into thinking the only reason I loved every minute of Toy Story 3 was directly related to the film itself.  Two hours with that boy in my lap is, to me, far more magical than any film could ever be.  Miss you, Dukes.  By which I mean: love you.).

Another perfect, perfect movie from Pixar.   Go see this one before it leaves theaters!

(Note for parents:  There’s one scene in this film I would describe as potentially too scary for little ones.  It involves a big fire pit and the imminent death of all our intrepid heroes.  But it doesn’t last long and both my 4 year-old nephew and 2 year-old niece weathered it just fine (and aren’t huge movie watchers, either, so it’s not really a question of their exposure to scary things in general).  Just thought this information might be helpful.  Enjoy!)

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Kids, Animation, Comedy
Cast:  Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris

BOOK: Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty (2009) by Craig Welch

July 14, 2010

I actually finished reading this terrific non-fiction book several weeks ago, but I’m way behind on reviews at the moment and am only now getting to this one in the list.  Which is dumb because I could’ve summed this book up in a single sentence: Shell Games is a  fascinating and thoroughly bizarre thrill-ride that’ll make you go “Huh?” and then “Hmmm. . .” and finally “WTF?!” (in a good way).  And I’m not just saying that because I know the author personally (although, disclosure: I do).

One of the best parts about reading this book, I have to say, was that when people asked me what it was about and I answered, “geoduck poachers,” I got the greatest looks.  Looks that said, “Whozzit what now?”  Looks that said, “What’s a ‘gooeyduck’ and why would I want to poach one?”  People were invariably curious at first, and then totally dumbstruck once filled in. Which makes sense, I suppose, because this is one weird, wild story.

The bulk of this tale is about an elaborate, surprisingly enormous ring of geoduck poachers that’s been operating in the Pacific Northwest for years (author Craig Welch is an environmental reporter at the Seattle Times).  Believe it or not, the poaching of these giant clams involves all the same sorts of things you’d expect to find in a drug smuggling operation: undercover officers, intricately planned stings, death threats, and millions of dollars in black market revenue.  Giant clams!  Selling overseas for $200+ apiece!  Get out — that’s loco like bananas (as my niece would say)!

Welch mostly focuses on a specific operation by the Fish and Wildlife department, describing the methods and motivations employed by all the various parties:  the officers in charge, their snitch/informant (a former poacher himself, perfectly happy to turn on his “colleagues”), and the poachers themselves, who are not, I repeat: NOT!, messing around here.  Tick one off and the next thing you know, there’ll be a price tag on your phallic-looking-clam-smuggling head.

Along the way, Welch also tells us about a variety of other wildlife thefts, everything from moss stolen from the forests of the Northwest (moss!  stolen!  for money!  boggles!  the!  mind!) to women smuggling small monkeys onto airplanes in their hair.  A long passage about a butterfly thief from Japan (selling his finds on Ebay, of all places) kept me up way past my bedtime, as the undercover cop in charge of bringing him down tried repeatedly to endear himself to the man, only to find himself constantly pissing him off instead.  As it turns out, butterfly smugglers also have extremely short fuses — somewhat surprising given the delicate nature of their work.  Also: they can really hold a grudge.

Every chapter in this book is as riveting as the last, but aside from the stories themselves, what makes Shell Games a true pleasure to read is the writing. Welch is a gifted author, with an astonishing talent for describing a scene — not what I expected, to be honest, from a newspaper reporter.  And, of course, the stories themselves read like white-knuckling fiction:  You’re going to blow that guy up because he’s. . . encroaching on your black market profits on. . . GEODUCKS?  Blow him up?  For CLAMS?  Again: boggled!

Once I picked this book up, I had a hard time putting it back down again.  It’s an absolute must-read for anyone interested in protecting our wildlife, or, for that matter, anyone who simply loves a brilliantly weird story.  (And by the way, Craig, next time I see you, I’m going to need to hear more about those monkeys-in-their-hair ladies. Get ready to regale me with more!)

Highly recommended!

[NON-FICTION]

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MOVIE: [REC]2 (2009)

July 13, 2010

NOTE:  This review contains spoilers for the first film in this series, [REC], and its American remake, Quarantine.  That probably goes without saying, but better safe than sorry when it comes to these things, non?  Oui.

I still remember exactly where I was when I saw the first [REC] movie:  curled into a terrified, tight little ball on my mother-in-law’s guest room bed, watching it play on my laptop while my husband was in the other room watching TV (no fan of horror films, he).  When it was over, I unfolded myself, padded into the living room, and announced I’d just seen the scariest movie of my life.  (He didn’t seem terribly impressed, but what does he know from scary?  Pfft.)  I watched it again a few months later, as well as the American remake (Quarantine), and even though it wasn’t nearly as scary the second or ‘Merican times, I still rank it pretty high in my list of Awesome.  When I can remember every detail about the scene I was sitting in myself while watching a movie, that means it was either an incredibly great experience or an incredibly bad one.  This one: incredibly great.

And so, as you can imagine, I approached its sequel, [REC]2, with a mix of excitement and trepidation.  Could it possibly be any good?  Would watching it just ruin the original for me in some way?  Would it be disappointing?  Hokey?  Stupid?

Answers:  Yes, No, No, No, and No!  Though it’s not as good as the first film, as few sequels are, it’s still one heck of a good time.  Well-constructed, well-acted, and, though not scary (to me, anyway), definitely thrilling to watch.

The story picks up immediately where the original left off, with TV reporter Angela Vidal being dragged away by the zombie-esque little girl in the attic who started the whole thing off.  Cut to the front of the quarantined building, where a doctor with the Department of Health is preparing to enter with a handful of SWAT team members, on a mission to get up to the attic where he believes a cure for the “infection” is tucked away.

In case you’ve forgotten what was revealed in the end of the original, it had to do with a researcher who was studying an infected girl he’d locked up in an attempt to find a cure for her.  Thinking she was secure, the researcher had hidden her away up there for months — until the disease got loose and began to spread through the building.  The doctor believes the researcher had that cure nearly completed when the outbreak outbroke and the plan is to get in there, grab it, and get back out, with the help of his hired guns.

The gang goes inside where, naturally, they are promptly attacked by a variety of infected residents.  They manage to get to the attic, finding a vial of patient zero’s blood — the key to the cure.  Part 1 of The Plan is a success.  The only problem is, Part 2 involves getting back out of the building, which is going to be a bit of a challenge now that half the hired guns are dead.  To complicate matters, a group of kids with a camera have broken into the building and are now running around recording everything.  They can’t be allowed out with their footage, so the doctor and what remains of his goons have to catch up to them before making a break for it.

Oy vey, it’s going to be a long night for our intrepid heroes.

We eventually learn all the details about the origin of the infection, details I probably wouldn’t have swallowed in an American film, but which made enough sense to me in a Spanish one — you’ll see what I mean when you get there.  And while the story wasn’t nearly as good as the original’s (it’s more fun when you’re clueless, in my opinion), it was still completely entertaining.  I had the big twist at the end figured out before it was revealed, but not too far in advance, and though they tacked on a scene immediately after its revelation that I think would’ve been better left out (speaking of hokey: giant worm thing = NO), overall, I thought this film gave us a pretty sharp twist on the usual rage-virus/zombie story.  I also liked the variety of cameras involved — each soldier has their own helmet-mounted camera, allowing us to see their point-of-view, and the kids have a camera as well, letting us into their side of the story at about the half-way point.  We also end up reunited with the TV camera from the original — hold onto your hats!).

Overall, damn satisfying, and, happily, the end leaves us with an intriguing direction for a [REC]3.  Too risky?  Hard to say.  Three-for-three seems like a lot to ask.  But I’ll still be chomping at the bit if they make it.

[REC]2 just opened in theaters (Seattlites: it’s at the Varsity right now, I believe).   But you can also rent it from Amazon.com for about $10 (with English subtitles), and it was well worth every red cent from where I sat.  Both Spanish films recommended, and I was pleased with the American remake of the original as well (Quarantine).

[Pre-queue at Netflix | Amazon Video-On-Demand]

Genre: Horror, Foreign
Cast: Jonathan Mellor, Manuela Velasco, Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso