(Video on Demand, March 2014) Presenting the grandiose life story of a criminal isn’t new grounds for veteran director Martin Scorsese, and that may explain why he has chosen to pile so much excess in a film that could (but probably shouldn’t) have been told far more economically. Centered around Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort’s short-lived (but lucrative) career in the waning days of the twentieth century, The Wolf of Wall Street does make an attempt at the usual tragic structure of such films: The introduction to a life of crime, the excessive fun and games of the high-flying protagonist, the enemy forces closing in, and the final disgrace as the protagonist loses everything. But the proportions are different of the norm: The introduction is frantic, the downfall takes less than two minutes and the rest of the film is pure excess piled upon pure excess: Drugs, sex, nudity, profanity all jostle for screen-time in this three-hour paean to the utter corruption made possible by a multi-million-dollars annual salary and an enabling environment without restraints. Leonardo DiCarpio is simply magnificent as the protagonist: Smart, driven, charismatic, absolutely corrupt and unable to stop himself. He directly addresses the audience as the revelry is unleashed around him, reassuring us that this is all illegal and that we wouldn’t understand all of the details. Not that we need to: At a time where Wall Street excesses are well-known and even celebrated, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t need to waste its time giving us a moral lesson: It would rather give us a full-throttle ride through decadence without false reassurances that sociopathic behavior always gets what it’s due. It makes for a lousy Sunday-school example, but an absolute marvel of a film: The Wolf of Wall Street is rarely less than hypnotically compelling, the work of a director working at his best. Many actors get their chance to shine here besides DiCaprio: Jonah Hill gets a ton of laughs (especially during a Qualuude-fueled scene with DiCaprio that already ranks as a classic bit of physical humor), Matthew McConaughey continues his white-hot acting streak in a pair of film-stealing scenes, while Margot Robbie gets a plum role that requires as much sex-appeal as honest acting talent. It amounts to a terrific thrill-ride of a film, slick in all the right ways and unusually respectful of its adult audience. Frankly, I’d rather see this film a second time than have a first look at many other films in my playlist.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) Sometimes, the deepest questions are spurred from the most humble origins. So it is that a lazy, self-indulgent and contemptuous film such as Grown Ups 2 can lead us to existential questions such as “Are we doomed to ever-decreasing standards of popular entertainment? Should I be ashamed of my own reactions to a film? Am I part of the problem?” Because, from the very first deer-urination moments of the film, it’s obvious that Grown Ups 2 takes the dumbest and laziest approach to comedy filmmaking. I haven’t seen the first film, but I doubt it would make much of a difference when Grown Ups 2 seems so satisfied with the broadest male-centric humor, mining bodily functions, basic life dilemmas, major insults, crass humiliation and worn-out clichés. It has the discipline of taking place on a single day, but that’s the last time “restraint” will be used to describe the aimless, quasi-random nature of the script. As series of “and this happened” episodes rather than a progression toward something meaningful, Grown Ups 2 simply strings along the gags as little skits, paying no attention to tone or logic. A massive party gets organized out of thin air, characters get to satisfy their soul-searching within moments and there’s never any attempt at creating something more complex than a simple setup-response comic structure. It’s shoddy filmmaking at best, and it’s a wonder that a low-brow film so badly conceived can not only be released theatrically, but earn a decent amount of money along the way. And yet, and yet… this is from Adam Sandler, after all, and it’s not as if audiences go in this film expecting fine writing and solid structure. Even antagonistic audience will find a few laughs during the comic carpet-bombing practiced here: I laughed a few times myself even as I was wondering how a movie could be this objectively bad. Heck, there are even a few nice things to say about various bits and pieces of the whole: Taylor Lautner turns in his most animated performance yet as a frat leader, while fans of (say) Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and Steve Buscemi will be satisfied by their quick appearances. Should I be forced to say something nice about the script, I’d have to be impressed at the way the movie juggles along dozens of speaking characters while giving them all something to do. But the point is: Even as classically bad as it is, Grown Ups 2 has enough laughs to make it an enjoyable and undemanding weekend-evening viewing. I have enjoyed far superior movies far less, and it pains me to admit that the lowest common denominator does include all of us. I’m glad I haven’t paid a cent to see it, though.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) On paper, V/H/S seems custom-made to annoy me: An anthology film (eek) of found-footage horror films (boo) featuring twenty-something hoodlums doing dumb things (urgh) and getting punished for them. My tolerance for grainy shaky-cam footage, frat-boy protagonists and they-all-die conclusions is at an all-time low, and I approached the film with low expectations. But V/H/S is actually pretty good at transforming its weaknesses into strengths: Aside from the mostly annoying frame story, the individual segments of the film usually have some wit to them, and the result is quite a bit better than anyone could expect. The anthology format may be repetitive for horror movies in which setup only cedes to gory death, but it sets a nice cyclical rhythm to the film, each vignette quickly building up to outright horror. The found-footage gimmick leads the individual writers/directors to ingenious devices (one vignette takes place entirely through video-chat, and two others from head-mounted cameras), and the grainy cinematography helps a lot when it comes to reinforce the realism of each piece –so that reality can break down more effectively. V/H/S is better than most movies in building up an effective sense of dread, where we can be convinced that bad things may be just a frame or two away. (The film’s most effective visual trick is in presenting a monster as a visual glitch in recording.) It amounts to an anthology that has its weak moments, but is generally successful at what it tries to do. As for the individual segments… Framing device “Tape 56” isn’t much: beyond initial revulsion at the taped antics of the delinquent protagonists and a sense of impending horror as they explore an empty house, it’s not much more than a structural conceit… and not even a particularly inspiring one. “Amateur Night” doesn’t feature more sympathetic protagonists, but the escalating sense of things turning badly is effectively limited by the perspective of the camera. (Hannah Fierman is also V/H/S‘s most noteworthy presence despite her one line of dialogue.) “Second Honeymoon” is the weakest segment, with a gory ending that seems to come out of nowhere even despite creepy bits of foreshadowing within a far-too-long setup. I’d file “Tuesday the 17th” as a half-success: Despite solid monster work, it seems arbitrary, forced and with such familiar slasher shtick that it could have worked better as comedy rather than earnest gore-fest. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” has a heck of a title and a clever form, but it seems to be playing with three ideas that don’t work well together. Fortunately, “10/31/98” singlehandedly ends V/H/S on the high note it needs, as a an expedition through a haunted house peaks with a deliriously enjoyable sequence in which the characters run through pure craziness: The mixture of frantic pacing and special effects work by Radio Silence filmmakers had me cackling for a full minute at the sheer action/horror crescendo of the piece, a very nice change of pace from the dread and squeamishness of the rest of the film.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) It’s interesting to see a performer like Dwayne Johnson slowly move away from straight-up action roles to more nuanced dramatic work. For a so-called action star, his charisma has long been off-the-scale, and his noteworthy performances have always gone beyond simply being a big guy handling big guns (or swords, or cars, or…) So it is that Snitch is a bit of a departure: a character-driven crime drama with a socially-conscious intent and little by way of outright action. Here, Johnson plays the hard-working father of a young man taken to prison after a relatively minor mistake. Forced to go undercover in the drug trade in order to free his son from prison, Johnston’s protagonist is drawn deeper and deeper in the underworld, forced to desperate actions. There’s a bit of social critique of the American judicial system, there’s a bit of family drama, there’s a bit about an honest entrepreneur working for dangerous mobsters, and there’s a final bit of guns-and-trucks action toward the end. For the most part, though, this is a small-scale crime drama with a likable protagonist stuck between two unsympathetic worlds, and how he tries to survive that forced descent in the name of family redemption. Snitch is not a big movie, and that requires the right expectations going into the film. While it’s a decent crime drama that evoke a throwback to past decades, it’s not much of a thriller when measured against the overblown action films with which Johnson has been associated throughout most of his career. Snitch may disappear quickly from public consciousness, but it’s a worthy showcase for Johnson to prove that he can do much more than be a hulking action hero.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) That’s it: I’m declaring a plague of kudzombies, as the undead are proving as invasive as kudzu in taking over just about every possible movie genres and premises. After The Colony, The Last Days on Mars is the latest science-fiction film taken over by a zombie invasion, leaving an interesting premise devoured by familiar elements from another genre. It starts promisingly enough, with a relatively realistic depiction of a Martian expedition. (The setting is obviously terrestrial down to the gravity, but then again this is a low-budget film.) Tension mounts as one of the scientists discovers life under the surface… but then the small cast starts being devoured by the undead and we’re back to the old zombie plot template. I mourn the film that could have emerged from the first few minutes, because the rest is pretty much seen-this-done-that under red skies. The science-fiction elements get marginalized quickly until we’re left with the basics of the good old infected-or-not lifeboat scenarios, with characters that should be used for more interesting things. The Last Days on Mars isn’t a bad movie by itself, but it quickly heads for too-familiar tropes at a time where the zombie theme itself is getting tedious by sin of simple over-exposure. Too bad; Liev Schreiber is credible as a panic-prone astronaut, while the other actors all get a few interesting scenes to themselves. The special effects are decent for a low-budget non-Hollywood production, the direction has its moments and the visual look of the film does much to reinforce its attempts as hard-SF. Still, none of this is a match for the powerful stench of Yet Another Darned Zombie Movie that eventually stinks up the whole thing. Can zombies just go away now?
(On Cable TV, March 2014) I’m not necessarily adverse to slow-moving character-based dramas in isolated locations featuring a handful of actors, but I like it a bit better when the characters are sympathetic and when there’s at least a bit of a dramatic arc to the bickering. In Our Nature has the benefit of a neat self-constrained premise, as an estranged father and son accidentally end up with their girlfriends at the family’s nature retreat due to a scheduling mishap. Forced to spend some time together, they all end up arguing, making up, saying terrible things to each other, experiencing nature and maybe (just maybe) gain some understanding of each other. This kind of thing is a natural actor’s showcase, and so it is a treat to see John Slattery, Gabrielle Union, Jena Malone and Zach Gilford get to exert some thespian muscles. Slattery doesn’t get very far from his Mad Men character and Zach Gilford labour under the constraints of a spoiled, unlikable character, so it’s up to Union and Malone to deliver the most interesting performances despite smaller roles. The film has a slow and somewhat amiable pacing: despite the remarkable location, there isn’t much to be done here than take advantage of the setting and let the characters talk. A few good ideas about estrangement and life are to be found in the mix, and for moviegoers who usually specialize in genre fiction, there’s something refreshing about a film that takes place in (often awkward) conversations, where the big action highlights are falling from a kayak and seeing a cub bear rummage through a kitchen. But there’s a limit to how much plotlessness even indie dramas can sustain, and once In Our Nature is over, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the film has plenty of loose ends, ideas left unexplored and the changes in the relationships by the end of the film are so subtle as to be insignificant. Is it a change of pace from Hollywood’s usual spectacle of overblown emotions? Of course. Is it satisfying from a moviegoer’s perspective? Not entirely.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) There is absolutely nothing new in Baggage Claim, a good-natured but familiar romantic comedy in which a flight attendant frantically sets out to find a husband in thirty days by re-examining her past boyfriends. The conclusion is obvious barely thirty minutes in the film (to the point where the remaining plot elements either feel forced or obvious) and all that remains is enjoying the actors’ performances. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing: Paula Patton finally gets a good starring comic role (after what felt like a long series of supporting roles in action movies) and she plays the comedy as broadly as she can, with infectiously charming results. There is also a lot to like in the series of would-be suitors jostling for screen time, from Derek Luke’s boy-next-door charm to Taye Diggs’ power-broker strength to Djimon Hounsou’s effortless smoothness. (Seriously; is that guy even capable of being anything less than totally suave?) While the film’s romantic messages (“Be yourself”, etc.) and airport-set climax were old decades ago, this familiarity works at lowering expectations to the point where the film feels likable even despite having nothing new to say. Romantic Comedies have the built-in advantage of innocuous failure modes: even at their blandest, they’re more forgettable than actively irritating. So it is that Baggage Claim may have flaws, but it’s competently-executed enough to settle for mild entertainment. The actors get to show what they can do, no one will be offended by the results and I can name plenty of films that don’t even meet those two criteria.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) The problem with making a movie that consciously call back to a sub-genre fallen in disfavor is that, well, there’s usually a reason why the sub-genre has gone away. With Bullet to the Head, veteran director Walter Hill clearly tries to model his movie after the countless buddy-cop action thrillers of the eighties, a fraction of which he himself directed. And to a certain extent, there’s an interesting clash-of-the-eras in pitting Sylvester Stallone against action upstart Jason Momoa. But the final result doesn’t do much more than string along a passable action thriller: Bullet to the Head is generic to a degree that would be almost laughable if it wasn’t for the suspicion that it’s actually trying to be as generic as it can be. While the dynamic between good-cop Sung Kang and secretly-nice-assassin Stallone can be fitfully amusing, there really isn’t anything new here. Stallone looks tired in yet another self-satisfied mumbling performance, and the dialogue that the script gives him really isn’t anything worth remembering. The plot is familiar, and while the various incidents along the way often try to make Stallone’s assassin character look far cooler than he is, he simply isn’t as interesting as the script believes him to be. There’s some value to the film, one supposes, in filling late-night slots, much like its 1980s predecessors once did. But if this is old-school, then it must be remedial class.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) There’s a familiar-but-intriguing premise at the heart of 13, as a down-on-his-luck young man discovers a secret society of rich gamblers betting on desperate people playing Russian roulette against each other. It’s got class commentary built into a rich suspense framework, which is usually more than enough for a respectable little thriller. Add actors such as Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke and Michael Shannon and you can almost expect something good. Unfortunately, the result is remarkably underwhelming. The slow pacing doesn’t help, nor does the somewhat indifferent lead character or the gratuitously drawn-out nihilistic ending. While this is an American remake of acclaimed low-budget Georgian thriller 13 Tzameti, I’m not sure Hollywood is to blame for the lack of energy, as writer/director Géla Babluani helmed both films, and plot summaries from both versions seem more or less identical. The marquee actors don’t add much, as they show up for scarcely more than secondary roles. 13 simply feels more annoying than thrilling, and considerably duller than its sharp premise suggests. No matter the premise, all is in the execution and this one is botched.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I can see why The Counselor got such terrible reviews. It’s utterly nihilistic, written with self-conscious lack of Hollywood polish, inconsistently paced and stylised to a degree that can be uncomfortable. The violence isn’t glamorous, the good guys are victims and there’s no escape from the consequences of bad decisions. On the other hand, I’m finding it hard to dismiss it out of hand as a complete failure: novelist Cormac McCarthy can be out of his depth as a screenwriter and Ridley Scott can have one of his off days, but the result of their collaboration has individual moments of off-beat brilliance. Michael Fassbender is compelling as a good man who decides to tempt fate with a few illegal decisions – The Counselor is about what happens when he runs afoul of some people without restraints to their wrath, and the ultimate price he pays for transgressing order. An interesting number of actors surround him, from an amused Brad Pitt to an often-hilarious Javier Bardem who gets some of the most darkly comic lines of the film. Penelope Cruze and Cameron Diaz get opposite roles as the good and the bad girl, with starkly different fates. There is, to be clear, no flow to the movie as it hops from one monologue to the other, from one oblique scene to the next and from one seemingly disconnected set piece to another. The film is at times suspenseful, disgusting, enigmatic, hilarious, horrifying and tragic. It’s all shot impeccably (it’s a Ridley Scott film, after all) but it struggles to amount to much more than a series of showcase sequences. There’s little suspense –almost by design, since this is a film describing an irreversible downfall but there is a sense of clumsiness to the result, as if no one could be bothered to smooth out the edges in-between the smaller pieces. That doesn’t make The Counselor an overlooked classic, but it makes it a hard sell for anyone who’d prefer a more consistent experience.
Berkley, 1994 paperback revised edition of 1985 original, 352 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-812-55070-2
It’s hard to overstate the prominence of Ender’s Game as one of the major novel in the Science Fiction genre. It swept the major awards of the field upon initial publication in 1985 and hasn’t stopped selling in the three decades since then. It’s one of those rare SF novels that nearly every serious fan has read, and it has found a substantial audience outside the genre. It’s a perennial favourite of SF academics, a part of the US Army course curriculum and has been translated in nearly all major languages. Now that it’s a movie, it’s likely to replace Dune as my perennial favourite for demonstrating the reach of media SF compared to written SF. (As in: In any given room, more people will have seen the averagely-successful movie than will have read one of the best-selling SF novels of all time.)
And with that success has come a substantial backlash, reinforced by the widely held perception among the most progressive wing of SF fandom that author Orson Scott Card has since become a conservative right-wing homophobe. (Vulture has a nice timeline of the controversy.) There is now a vigorous number of essays criticizing the novel from various points of view: John Kessel’s Creating the Innocent Killer remains a landmark, but for a comprehensive look at the various self-contradictions and outright puzzlers of the novel, I can’t recommend highly enough Will Wildman’s vastly entertaining and insightful Ender’s Game read-through. And I’m sure that there’s plenty of accumulated wisdom somewhere in the 7643 reviews that the book (merely 179 of them one-star) has accumulated so far on Amazon.
I first read Ender’s Game as an older teenager, and it’s fair to say that almost exactly twenty years later, I don’t quite have the same perspective on it than I did back then. I picked up the book shortly after seeing the movie adaptation, and unlike my mid-nineties read-through, I immediately started second-guessing the basic premise of the novel. Ender’s Game appeals to smart teenagers because it tells them that they are special, and so are inevitably ostracised by normal people, and that being so exceptional gives you the right to kill your tormentors as long as you feel bad about it. This is the kind of power-fantasy that explains the book’s success… and that seems toxic once you graduate from high school. Given my life’s journey so far, I’m increasingly dubious (and headed toward repulsion) of fantasies of exceptionalism. The bedrock of Ender’s Game plot machinations are that the end justify the means, that it’s OK to systematically abuse a boy if he’s the only chance that humanity has at surviving. But that only works as a narrative conceit. The real world doesn’t require such harsh premises: smart people are everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where a single exceptional person could save the world. In reality, many people are suitable for even the toughest assignments, and they usually succeed because of systems, teams, procedures and support mechanism that do much to distribute expertise among capable groups. (Yes, I work in an office.) Exceptionalism is a sure road to exceptions and abuses of power. We don’t need exceptional people to save us: We need structures so that we never get in a situation where we need saving by exceptional people.
But never mind that for a moment: Broad ideological objections aside, Ender’s Game does remain a highly enjoyable read. Card has a gift for prose narration that remains easily readable while hitting ambitious emotional targets. His handling of incluing is as good as it gets (as you can see from the use of technology that is never explicitly explained, but fits the plot naturally while surviving twenty years of innovations) and he manages to render a compelling internal monologue for his characters. As strange as some of the novel’s plot points can be, their handling feels right –the sequences where the teams of soldiers-in-training go in combat are exhilarating, and there is some strong emotional material in the conversations that Ender has with his sister.
It’s also worth underlining how ironic the novel seems to be from beginning to end. Ender may be a savior of humanity, but he needs to be made alien to everyone in order to do so. His greatest triumph remains his biggest mistake, and for an entire novel thirsting for xenocide, Ender’s Game seems positively devastated when humans triumph over their opponents. Ironies pile upon each other in a rich blend that makes it hard to dismiss the entire novel as being much of this and some of that.
Still, Card’s contemporary reputation as a right-wing homophobe being what it is, it’s amusing to spot in a 1985 novel the various kernels of what would later define him among a certain audience.
- Sexism? Try the bit where girls are said to be less aggressive than boys due to centuries of evolution:
“All boys?” “A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them. (Chapter 3)
- Jingoism/religionism/birthism? I was gobsmacked by the bit where the French (in their “arrogant separatism” ) are bashed for daring to speak French rather than “common” language –in the same novel where the Poles are praised for chafing against anti-Catholicism (and, more importantly, anti-birth-limits) restrictions. Have a look at this:
His name, Ender quickly learned, was Bernard. He spoke his own name with a French accent, since the French, with their arrogant Separatism, insisted that the teaching of Standard not begin until the age of four, when the French language patterns were already set. (Chapter 5)
Your father was baptized with the name John Paul Wieczorek. Catholic. The seventh of nine children. (…) Your father denies his Polish ancestry, since Poland is still a noncompliant nation, and under international sanction because of it. (…) [Your parents] haven’t really given up their religion. They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. (Chapter 3)
- Zionism? There’s a few paragraphs dedicated at explaining why Jews make the best generals (and this despite a Jewish character called by a slur and demonstrated to be not very good at the stuff.): it starts with
“Since the I.F. was formed the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew. There was a myth that Jewish generals didn’t lose wars. And so far it was still true.” (Chapter 8).
- Racism? There’s a bit where the kids trade the n-word and then laugh about slavery, which ends with
“Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first,”. (Chapter 6)
[This bit apparently isn’t to be found in the latest editions of the novel.]
But there’s something even more amazing (not) to be found in a contemporary reading of Ender’s Game: For an author often accused of homophobia, you’ll find quite the opposite in the novel. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to read protagonist Ender as a gay, and the events showing him his true preferences in bonding with other boys while having ambivalent non-romantic feelings about girls. In a better universe, a slightly-revised version of Ender’s Game has become beloved for showing a positive role model for young gay teenagers. In this world, oh well. Moving on.
Perhaps my biggest reaction to a second reading fifteen years later is how rough the novel can feel at times. The world-building is a bit shaky around the edges, the plots points handled more arbitrarily than needed. A close reading of the text reveals astonishing contradictions, and push buttons that readers may develop later in life. I still think (as documented in my big list of Alternate Hugo Winners) that Ender’s Game is one of the novels from 1985 that everyone should read, but I now have to temper this assessment with a few warnings (and maybe move Sterling’s Schismatrix to the top spot). This, too, feels like the passing of the years more than any change in the novel itself: I’m not the same reader than I was twenty years ago, and my then-tendency to see it through uncritical fannish lenses has been eroded away (and even more so lately that I’m reading far less SF and am so not as completely immersed in its privileged assumptions.) So it goes; much like the plot of Ender’s Game requires an innocent ready to be molded into a destroyer of worlds, it strikes me more than ever that Ender’s Game is deliberately optimised for less-jaded readers. Which may very well explain its massive appeal: there are far more innocents out there than stone-cold readers.
[April 2014: Reasoning that I’d never get as good an opportunity while the original was still fresh in my mind, I re-read “parallax” novel Ender’s Shadow, which explores the same rough timeline from the perspective of ‘”Bean”, a minor character in Ender’s Game. Here we see Card’s attempts to patch the holes in Ender’s Game with fifteen years’ insight and second guesses about the first novel. Nearly every dicey plot development in Game is explained in Shadow as part of a masterful plan by someone even smarter than Ender. It often reaches ludicrous levels of disbelief (especially once you factor in Bean’s age) but there is some compelling material here and there, especially in getting another, better hit of the same kind of excitement about Battle School training. There are some major contrasts between both novels, though, and some of the issues in the previous novel simply can’t be explained away. My advice: If you’re going to read Ender’s Game, have a quick look through Ender’s Shadow while events are still fresh in your mind. Browse quickly over the parts with Sister Carlotta and Achilles, and focus on the parallax view of Ender as from other viewpoints.]
(First-through-fiftieth viewings, Toddler-watching, On Blu-Ray, March 2014) I must have watched Cinderella a few times as a kid, but watching again with my daughter is like seeing a new film… especially when toddler-watching it a few dozen times in a row. As I should know by now, animated Disney movie have amazing power to remain just as enjoyable today as they did upon release a long time ago (a baby born on Cinderella‘s premiere day would be months away from retirement as I write this): the toe-tapping musical numbers, clean direction style, charming animal sidekicks and heart-warming finale have all survived nearly intact and have been re-used in countless other movies since then. Cinderella is one of the classic underdog stories, of course, and this version basically codified Perrault’s fairytale into the sanitized form that most people have now learned. (I have a non-Disney “Cinderella” puzzle book within reach, and despite the adorable anime drawing style, nearly all of the background details are inspired by the Disney version.) The animals remain one of the enduring assets of the film: Cinderella herself barely shows any personality (although I do like the glimpse at her exasperation at hearing the castle bells toll upon waking up) and the antagonists are too caricatured to be taken seriously. (On the other hand, there’s a pretty good gag involving the cat blowing out a candle.) But ask my daughter: we’re really watching for the animals and the musical numbers: “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” remains the standout sequence of the film, even though “The Work Song” is a solid second, and “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” remains curiously hummable, especially in its horrid version. Otherwise, I still think the film ends too quickly… but that’s often a relief when going through another round of “this is the last time we watch it today, OK? The last time.”
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I said it about the first movie and I’ll say it again because it’s important: I don’t really care about the entire mythology of Marvel’s Thor character. It’s a hodgepodge of fantasy concepts all blended together and I can’t make myself to care about Asgaard’s sixteen worlds of wonder or whatever. The hammer is lame, the palace intrigue is dull, Thor looks silly and the material with his faithful companions (or, again, whatever) is so under-developed as to be a waste of footage. So it’s no surprise if Thor 2 feels like such a slog in-between the passable parts. I still find Chris Hemsworth compelling in the title role, I’m not entirely immune to Tom Hiddleston’s charming villainous performance as Loki and there are a few nice special effects sequences here and there. But once the geekery cranks up into a salad of made-up words, I’m left rolling my eyes and thanking my own good luck that I never got into comics in any serious way. I’m still frustrated by the absence of thematic depth to the Thor films, and felt my fleeting interest dwindle the longer the film was away from Thor or Loki. I’ll tolerate the result if it means we get another Avengers film out of it, but come Thor 3‘s opening day, look for me anywhere but in the movie theaters showing it. I don’t care and it increasingly looks as if no one can make me care.