Archive for October, 2008

Cyndere’s Midnight

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2008 by Brandon

With “Auralia’s Colors,” Overstreet introduced an expansive and vast world with lush language and a huge cast of characters that were juggled nicely for a premiere novel. In “Cyndere’s Midnight,” Overstreet’s great writing has only gotten better, with a larger cast of characters that are handled more effectively than in the previous book, a deeper delving into the world of Abascar, and a pretty fast moving storyline with plenty of classic bloody fantasy action. There’s romance, lust, betrayal, magic, evil, and a powerful sense of good. It’s an engaging read from start to finish.

There’s several different plotlines that make up the story of the book – the central one being a well-rendered classic beauty and the beast tale, of a beastman named Jordam who awakens from the beastmen’s eternal ravenous walking slumber, thanks to Auralia’s Colors, and meets Cyndere, the heiress who is determined to bring back the Cent Regus house from the deep dark pit into which “The Essence” flung them.

The novel also follows a storyline from the perspective of The Four Brothers (beastmen)- Mordafey, Jorn, Goreth, and Jordam, who want to make a deal with the Cent Regus monsters so they can take over House Abascar and steal all their treasures. Often in fantasy novels, when the writer chooses to write from the perspective of the “bad guys,” it’s done cheaply, where the author merely imprints human characteristics directly onto a beast. But Overstreet shows more attention to detail than this; the way the beastmen speak and the way they act, and their very attitude, are much more than simply the opposite of humans – they’re their own twisted and scarred race.

There’s of course several other small characters spatted through the lot, the more prominent of them being Captain Ryllion, a soldier at Tillianpurth who is willing to do anything to kill the beastmen once and for all; Emerienne, one of Cyndere’s handmaidens and her closest friend; and Pretor Xa, a Seer from Bel Amica with mysterious intentions and a creepily confident always-there grin. And this just scratches the surface. With “Cyndere’s Midnight,” Overstreet has overcome the problem that the first book encountered, where the language took over the characters and detached the reader from the story slightly.

Now, the characters and the language dance together, one rarely overtaking the other, usually balancing out perfectly. When the story is written from the perspective of Jordam, the sentences are written with earthy, lushy, violent tones, appropriate to a beastman, but when we get the perspective of Cyndere, the language is appropriate to that of royalty – Cal-Raven’s perspective usually has a strong tone of pride in House Abascar and a sincere desire to do what’s right – all these different perspectives balance out in a story that takes the reader all around the Great Expanse, and though it’s not unpredictable or ridiculously inventive, it is an extremely well crafted tale that fascinates and enchants and fulfills the promise that “Auralia’s Colors” gave.

Overstreet also threads in dozens of different themes throughout the book, from the obvious beauty and the beast theme to others like finding your calling, the power and danger of human reason and pride, the need to trust in something greater than yourself, and the important task of the stronger needing to help the weak, regardless of personal danger or loss. It undergirds the whole story with strong morality that will cause readers to become thoroughly involved in the large and seemingless endless Expanse. The morality also firmly entrenches “Cyndere’s Midnight” in a world that has some very clear rules and some very clear mysteries that readers will want to learn more about as soon as the book is closed, though unfortunately we’ve got to wait a couple more years till “Cal-Raven’s Ladder” comes out. All right, Mr. Overstreet, we’re waiting…..

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High School Musical 3 (7/10)

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2008 by Brandon

Before we get into this, let’s drop all the pretenses and just say it: the High School Musical series is a happy go-lucky cheese fest and this movie nothing more than an intentionally super sappy love letter to the fans of the first and second movie. Is there really any point in reviewing it from any other perspective, any point to approaching it with solid ideals in mind like good acting, originality, or plot creativity? Don’t be silly.

Unfortunately, I have to report on one front that it is a bit of disappointment – the story basically recycles the plot from the first movie, down to Troy having to make some kind of a decision between acting and basketball. In this, I’m sure they even disappointed a few hardcore fans, who had been hoping for a big screen worthy adventure and got merely a glitzed up version of the original. But that’s okay.  Get over it. The movie begins with the Wildcats winning the last game of the season and graduation day approaching fast, and of course  the senior spring music-al (as the drama professor so perfectly cheesily puts it), created exclusively by the seniors, comes along too, with the prestigious arts school Julliard eyeing four different candidates at East Side High.

Pressure mounts all around, and Ashley Tisdale is back as Sharpay Evans, but this time she has a servant from England who follows her around like an obedient little dog, eager to learn whatever mistress has to teach.  Tisdale is as into the act as ever, but in this third outing it’s getting a little bit tiresome. They don’t even pretend to add plot or character, it’s all the exact same thing, which is both a relief and a frustration, because the series’s simplicity has kept its core fans, and by now there’s no way director Kenny Ortega doesn’t know these movies are just for fun.

The performances are decent all around, of course Zac Efron, already on to more professional projects like “Hairspray” and the “Big”-like comedy “17 Again,” is the best, an effortless presence with of course gratuitous shots of his rippling biceps for the giggling teenage girls in the audience. (I was sitting behind five of these girls – Actually, basically a theatre-full.) Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, and the rest of the gang are back and still in top form as well, though this time around it’s more about Troy and Gabriella going to different colleges in the fall. The movie focuses on them slightly too much, and it stretches the plot nearly to a breaking point – they share three songs together,  in addition to their finale song, whereas they only shared one, maybe two, in each of the previous ones. It’s entertaihning, but a little bit of an overdose.

There are plenty of other dance tunes kicking it up around the movie, too, of course, from the opening number “Now or Never,” a song that plays over the opening basketball game, to “The Boys Are Back,” where Troy and Chad reminisce about their days as kids in the junkyard pretending to be doing a dozen different jobs at once, to the finale “High School Musical,” which may as well be a song saying directly to the fans, “All right, it’s time to say goodbye, guys. This is the last you’ll see of us.” Most of the dance numbers are fun and energetic, with wow-choreography, courtesy once again of Kenny Ortega, but some of the energy from the second one seems slightly lacking – in this one there aren’t as many impressive mass dance numbers, and because we feel like we’ve seen pretty much this exact same story before, it’s difficult to get involved. At least the second one had the decency to act like it was different.

So yeah, this movie isn’t as amazing as it should have been for its first big screen outing, but it’s still a really fun ride, and if you’re not a fan by this point, why are you even reading this? Leave us “High School Musical” fans to ourselves. This movie will satisfy most fans like a solidly good meal that’s missing just the tiniest bit of something. And despite what the final song seems to say to the fans, you can bet this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the wildcats, in theatres or otherwise.

W. (8/10)

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2008 by Brandon

To talk about reviewing W., you first have to talk about your experience watching it.  I’m sure every audience someone watches it with is different, but watching my audience was particularly interesting – they would laugh heartedly at the slightest joke at Bush’s expense, and stay fairly silent for the rest of the movie. It was kind of awkward, and I think that’s exactly how Oliver Stone wanted it.

Most of the people in the theatre were obviously expecting a movie that would make fun of George Bush mostly at his expense, but Oliver Stone turns the tables (in an election year less than three weeks before voting day no less) and presents a simple look at a son who used his charms to rise to the top because he desperately wanted to make his father proud, and in an attempt to fulfill this, impossibly screwed himself over.

The screenplay is simple yet effective, aided mostly by the truly amazing performances, but we’ll get to those later. In the movie, we don’t get much about the events we know a lot about – but it doesn’t seem to be because Stone doesn’t want to focus on his mistakes – he blatantly has a scene in which Josh Brolin as George Bush walks out onto a battleship to give a victory speech in front of the Mission Accomplished banner. Rather, his choice to not include the major crises of George Bush’s eight years as president is because he knows that the audience knows them backwards and forwards,  and there’s no point in making us relive events like 9/11 simply so we can become more angry at him.

Stone isn’t interested in throwing any new stones at Bush. He knows it’s been done – and if it’s been done before, why bother to do itg again? It’s a daring directing choice, and in that he succeeds, even if the story does skimp slightly on larger issues in Bush’s life and instead keeps the central storyline strongly tied to George Bush, Sr, played by James Cromwell, in a towering, stately, and perfectly fatherly role.  Laura Bush is played by, unexpectedly, Elizabeth Banks, and she comes off surprisingly well, playing Cindy as a loyal wife, faithful all the way to the end. It’s a sweet love story kind of, in the movie. The thing to remember is that though W. strong central points are true, it is a fictional movie. Though Stone has said that he believes it to be an accurate representation of Bush, deciding will be up to you, dear reader.

To continue with the performances, Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice only gets a few lines, and though she’s effective, it seems like she’s playing her more like an SNL character than an imitation of the real person.  Richard Dreyfuss, after a very long casting process, was finally chosen for Dick Cheney, and like most of the cast, they’re not people who would come to mind first when thinking about the role – and though he doesn’t sound exactly like Cheney, the way he talks and his slightly devious side is perfectly done. He plays Cheney as creepy, but not overly so. The rest of the cast does just as well, for the most part, enhancing the slightly weak script with performances that truly are riveting, all the way down to W. himself.

Josh Brolin, in interviews beforehand, stated that he did not want to do an imitation or an impersonation of the man, along the lines of Will Ferrell or Tina Fey. He said he wanted to capture the man himself, the way he speaks, and who he was, and he did a very good job – it’s very easy to imagine the Bush we see now growing up the way Stone shows him doing so – though vast gaps are left in his life, you still get a sense that you could be watching George Bush grow up, and Josh Brolin ages him smoothly and seamlessly, a performance that could be worth an Oscar, but probably won’t get recognized.

W. has its flaws, though. Sometimes, when a huge mistake is made in the presidency, you get the feeling that Oliver Stone feels like the guy is more like a kid who screwed up than a grown man who may have seriously done something wrong. It’s a message that will probably be taken the wrong way by those viewers who wish to not like this movie, because I don’t think Oliver Stone intends to make light of George Bush’s errors – he’s simply giving perspective, offering what may be seen as our incumbent’s place in history down the line. It’s not a perfect movie, by far, but it is fascinating one, and it’s usually difficult to look away from the screen when Josh Brolin is on. Like it or not, this movie now has its place in history. You should probably see it.

Saw V (V/X)

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2008 by Brandon

Here’s what I’ve decided about the Saw series: if you look at them as more of an overarching story about Jigsaw than as a series of vignettes of all these boring people, then it kind of starts to make sense. Just block out all the very tedious characters that you’ll have to wade through, focus of Tobin Bell’s amazing use of terrible dialog, and you might have an enjoyable experience. Otherwise, Jigsaw’s latest puzzle is just as bewildering as ever, with the most convoluted plotline and worst ending of the series.

The movie revolves around a central cast of five characters who are part of a series of traps, cut with scenes of the man we know as the next Jigsaw from Saw IV, Mark Hoffman, played by Costas Mandylor, who looks eternally pissed off and slightly bored at the same time. His expression never changes (I checked!),  and he alone helped to screw this movie over. Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is as creepy as ever – the trying-too-hard plotline gives him some interesting extra characteristics that add to the mythology that has been developing in the series since Jigsaw’s death.

There’s no point in trying to explain the plot any further – if you’ve seen one Saw, you’ve seen them all, basically – this is the goriest of the series, and yet, somehow, the most sophomoric and the most disappointing – the traps are all cheap tricks and hardly any of them are truly creative., if that’s what you’re into. You’ll be grossed out, but never truly scared and never truly disgusted.

Acting is as bad as ever, and the script doesn’t even bother to keep the characters “in character”, so to speak, as the dialog is completely interchangeable between most of the cast. It does tie some storylines nicely all the way back to the first and second one, in ways that I was not expecting, and I know the Saw mythology thoroughly.  This movie doesn’t add much, and it leads up to what will probably be a disappointing sixth movie. Take that for what you will.

What Just Happened? (7/10)

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2008 by Brandon

“What Just Happened” isn’t for those who don’t have an interest in how the movie business works. To outsiders, it has the possibility of seeming slightly tedious and pointless, but to people to whom this does appear fascinating, like me, it’s actually kind of an impressive little movie with some very good performances and a solid tongue-in-cheek tone that is very often brutally honest about the Hollywood system and how painful, unethical, frustrating, and downright wrong it can be.

Robert DeNiro plays the affable leading man Ben, a Hollywood producer who has nearly wrapped production on a new Sean Penn awards vehicle, “Fiercely,” and is about to start work on an upcoming Bruce Willis project as well. Throw in an ex-wife with whom he still shares a slightly close/awkward friendship, an overbearing studio head, and the self-important artistic drug addict director of the awards vehicle and you have what actually could believably be the life of a Hollywood producer, minus a few traits exaggerated for comic effect.

DeNiro lets down his gangster/bad ass cop hackles and thankfully turns in a performance that lets audience members relate to him as the plot follows a week in his life, from when he finds out he is going to appear in a “Vanity Fair” article about the 20 most powerful men in Hollywood to the time the actual photo-shoot takes place.

Directly Barry Levinson was wise in toning down the glitz and glamour usually associated with movie stars, shooting in a simple style that makes you feel like you’re having a bad, hectic and stressful week in your own life rather than that of a multimillionaire. The movie would have been a boring, “why should I care about these people” bomb that  directors sometimes fumble,  like Wood Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” but instead Levinson is not afraid to show the Hollywood system for what it is: an endless, greedy, moneymaking machine, content to squash dreams and creative ambition left and right merely for the sake of a profit. (A key plotline in the movie hinges on Bruce Willis refusing to shave a beard he grew for a part – which he believes fits his character but which the filmmakers know will make it a box office bomb.)

It’s all pretty funny, too, not the laugh-out hysterics you might expect from a vehicle with about five + star appearances,  but a more honest kind of humor that rings true without seeming contrived. The story moves along with a few bumps here and there as some contrived elements occasionally pop up, but these are more often than not defeated by a script that refuses to take the easy way out – whereas usually you would expect a lesser movie to rekindle the relationship De Niro and his wife had, the relationship onscreen instead feels like a snapshot of everyday life.

The performances on the side are good enough to mention too, from Bruce Willis playing an obnoxious loud version of himself and having great fun while also grounding it in reality, to Catherine Keener relishing her role as the merciless studiohead ready to cut budgets, directors, and actors, as long as it means a bigger gross for the studio.

The movie ends on a note that will leave some viewers with the thought, “What DID just happen?” but in retrospect it’s difficult to see how it could have ended any other way.  It’s an ending that completes the character’s journey while not seeming artificially cut off or artistically edited to make it seem “profound” or “cool.” The movie business ain’t rocket science, ladies and gentlemen, Levison is telling us. They’re people, just like you and me, and just like you and me, they’re motivated by greed, power, and money. It’s questionable how the artistic process can survive such a cutthroat world, and Levison doesn’t give easy answers, but he does place some signposts here and there. He leaves it up to the viewer to figure it out, and dear reader, so I will do with you.

Max Payne (3/10)

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , on October 25, 2008 by Brandon

Whatever happened to good old Marky Mark? Where’s the fantastic actor that we all know we say in “Boogie Nights” and who unleashed his near-full potential in “The Departed?” After this year’s bomb “The Happening,” he’s continued his mediocre movie streak with the over-stylized “Max Payne,” a film which defies analysis by taking itself so seriously it doesn’t even pay attention to the plotholes and half a dozen pointless threads, soldiering on to a bewildering conclusion whose self-important morality lessons are matched only in ridiculousness by the question that will haunt most viewers’ minds as they exit the theatre: “Why?”

Mark Wahlberg plays Detective Max Payne, a no-nonsense cop who is haunted by a tragedy that befell his wife and daughter years ago, and to this day he still has not caught the man who did it.  As he unleashes a new trail of clues that may lead to discovering who is responsible for his wife’s death, he discovers a powerful hallucinogenic drug that an evil corporation controls – and of course it’s up to him to take them down, basically, with lots of exploding glass, gun shots, and gratuitous “look, I’m being serious” face-shots,, one after the other virtually without ceasing.

This is a summarization of the plot, and I say summarization because there are times when it truly doesn’t make any sense. The plot hops from Payne, to another detective on the case, to a bad guy with nasty tattoos on his rippling sweaty German super-soldier like body, intercut with flashbacks that helpfully obfuscate the storyline while giving us boring stretches of tedium to take a break from the tedious stretches of boring.

Occasionally some style breaks through the mildewed surface of the movie, in some scenes where we get to see the hallucinogenic effects of the drug, but all of these are too few and far between, and because the precise origins of the hallucinations are unclear, there’s never any real motivation to care for the characters to whom this is happening – big whoop, you have some people tripping out on a strange kind of LSD. “Max Payne” is like a clichéd big city detective version of Constantine, only it’s a poser, a PG-13 rip-off scam that will cheat both viewers and fans of the video game out of what could have been a legitimately fun ride.

Mark Wahlberg seems pretty pissed off most of the time, as if he hadn’t read the script before signing on. The rest of the cast limps around like the dying stars they are, from the pathetically and obliviously over-the-top “bad girl” Mila Kunis, to last year’s “Hitman” love interest Olga Kurylenko as the token hooker who wants to sleep with the hero precisely because he’s so damn resistant to her wiles, to Ludacris once again picking the wrong movie to try prove he has an acting career.

Though I have never played the “Max Payne” video game, I do know that it’s one of the landmark video games of all time, and from most gamers that I have spoken to, the movie, as usual, butchers the video game story into little tiny pieces because they don’t trust the audience to digest anything bigger than what a two-year old could safely choke down. And if your experience watching this movie is anything like mine was,  you’ll most likely want to do choke right back up the terrible trash you just joked down. There’s really no point to the movie – it can claim to have some kind of style, but that’s nothing more than amateurish low lighting with high contrast between light and dark, combined with a few fiery demonic/angelic scenes that, though cool-looking, do not save this movie from inflicting a MAXimum amount of PAYNE.

Ahoy! There be reviews ahead…

Posted in Update with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2008 by Brandon

So I may not have fulfilled my promise to my thousands of faithful readers in giving out an analysis of the season premieres of The Office and Heroes, but in an attempt to curb the surely incoming tide of angry hate mail, I’m going to post up my thoughts on the seasons so far.

As for movie reviews, recently I have seen What Just Happened and Max Payne, and tomorrow I plan on seeing Saw V, so expect those reviews to come along sometime this weekend, and of course, let’s not forget that High School Musical 3 is in theatres too, so as soon as I see that you can expect a review extremely pronto.

Until then, dear readers, the truth is out there.