Category Archives: Books

Carrie (1976)

carrie1976

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’ve only kindled a love for “scary movies” in the last three or four years, so I don’t feel too guilty in admitting that I had never heard of Carrie until earlier this year when I learned of the upcoming re-adaptation of the original Stephen King novel, which I’m actually pretty excited for. To prepare myself, I read King’s book and decided that I needed to watch the “classic” Brian de Palma film before seeing the new film. Thankfully, I was pretty pleased.

Carrie follows the eponymous Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), an outcast who lives with her questionably-sane Christian fundamentalist mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). Her school life isn’t any better, with her classmates teasing and bullying her on a daily basis. She soon discovers that she has telekinetic powers that grow stronger in times of extreme anger or stress. When Sue Snell (Amy Irving), a popular girl who feels guilty for how she treated Carrie, convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom, things seem to be getting better, but when she becomes the victim of a cruel prank pulled by Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (John Travolta), she unleashes her powers in a huge display of revenge.

I’m surprised by how faithful of an adaptation of the book this film is, at least up until the end. Sissy Spacek plays both sides of her character incredibly well – poor, sweet, innocent Carrie vs. Carrie the exactor of revenge. Her rise and fall during the climactic prom scene is equally satisfying and tragic – to have a happy ending within her reach only to have it snatched away from her so cruelly. The lead-up to and subsequent dump of the bucket of blood is by far the best part of the film; it is so perfectly done, with the emotional stakes so incredibly high. William Katt as her date to the prom, Tommy, is wonderfully quirky and endearing. His initial (understandable) reluctance to ask Carrie to prom and his growth into a young man who treats Carrie so well actually made me feel proud of him. His brief time spent in her company is enjoyable for everyone; with apparent ease he alleviates all of her anxiety and makes us come to love both him and to see Carrie for who she is – a girl who wants nothing more than to fit in. Another great performance comes from Piper Laurie as Carries mother. Her eccentricity is palpable as we watch her force Carrie into a closet to pray for forgiveness or as she tells her daughter how she was conceived in sin. Her first appearance in the film, visiting the parent of one of Carrie’s schoolmates to talk about God, seems innocent enough until she reveals how insane her beliefs are, which is what makes the character interesting here.

The actors who play Sue, Chris, and Billy all do a decent job, but one casualty of the film’s only 98-minute run time is that much of the focus placed on these three characters in the book is lost. In fact, the story in the book alternates telling the story from the perspectives of not only Carrie, but Sue, Chris, and Billy as well. These three actors, including a not-yet-famous John Travolta, could have had much larger roles in the film and really had a chance to show their talents had the film had a longer run time. An advantage that the book has over the film is the ability to treat the reader to the characters’ inner monologues so that we can understand their intentions and feel their emotions as they do. I wish that the ending of the film had been more accurate to the book because it is the climax of the story: Carrie’s revenge. In the book, she goes on an all-out rampage, starting with the students at the school and expanding into the town itself, leaving a death toll of over 400 people in her wake. The destruction she causes is substantially reduced in the film, likely due to budgetary concern.

One storytelling technique that the book uses is inserting clippings from books written by scientists studying “the Carrie White affair” or even from a memoir by Sue Snell. These inserts forecast the events that are to come and hint at who lives, who dies, and explore the implications of someone developing telekinetic powers. In one sense, I’m glad that the filmmakers took this out because 1) it would be difficult to fit into a film and 2) it left the events in the film to be a mystery, but I have to admit that I missed this aspect of the book a bit. The music in the film is pretty good; I don’t own the score or remember anything in particular standing out to me, but it certainly wasn’t bad. The only thing I have to say about the music is that the composer, Pino Donaggio, was definitely channeling his inner Bernard Hermann – his musical motif for Carrie’s telekinetic powers evokes memories of the screeching violins from the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho…this was probably intentional, of course.

Overall, though I seem to have torn this apart for its inaccuracies from the book, I have understood for a long time that books and their film adaptations have to be accepted as entirely different entities, so I really enjoyed the movie and can understand why it’s a classic. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to wipe the image of Carrie’s demented, blood-covered face from my mind. Sissy Spacek nails the role here, and the rest of the cast pull together an admirable adaptation of a great Stephen King book…though I’m certainly hoping that the re-adaptation is better. We’ll see!

-Chad

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: R


John Carter (2012)

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) and released by Disney, I became quite excited to see this film upon seeing the trailers, but I faltered when it was received poorly by critics and didn’t do well at the box office. Recently, however, I read Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (my review), which talks about why the film failed the way it did, getting me re-interested in John Carter and leading me to read author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original book, A Princess of Mars (my review). All the while, I became more and more excited to see the film despite its negative reception – I wanted to see this world come to life! –  and, now that I’ve seen it…what’s wrong with everyone? What is there to dislike about this film?

Here is Disney’s official plot synopsis:

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

For the first half hour or so of the film, I was pretty skeptical. A confusing, not-from-the-book opening scene raises many questions right off the bat, and the first few minutes of the actual film are not much better. I began writing out a mental list of complaints, but I shoved that aside the farther I got into the film. Does it have its problems? Well, yeah, but every movie does. Does it deserve all of the negativity that it has received? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Stanton takes plenty of liberties with Burroughs’ world and characters, but, looking back, I understand the reasoning behind every single one of them. While the John Carter of A Princess of Mars is a good guy just because he is a good guy and there’s no questioning it (it works great in the book), the John Carter of the film has issues; he’s stubborn, he’s selfish, and even disrespectful at times. However, all of this builds and builds to give Carter the opportunity to be the good guy, bringing a character arc that is needed for film. It is a pleasure to watch Taylor Kitsch as John Carter of Earth discover the part of him that is actually John Carter of Mars, willing to fight and die for the good beings of Barsoom. The Dejah Thoris of the book is not a warrior, nor is she a scientist, but she is both in the film, giving her a more active role in the story and letting her be more than just the romantic damsel in distress (which, again, worked really well in the book). Lynn Collins plays the character with an appropriate amount of spirit and energy, capturing both the romantic side of the character that would be required of a Princess of Mars, but she also brings the new feisty side of the character necessitated by the script. The addition of the mysterious Therns to the film is a bit confusing at first, and certain story elements and characters are removed, but all of it comes out okay, working for the film’s good.

The scope of the film is just as large as that of the book, with the choice of filming in real locations rather than using a green screen being something that I think humanizes it a bit, making it more accessible to the viewers. Sure, the original story is meant to be “out there,” but it’s more the characters who inhabit the world and how they interact with each other that create the scope of the story, not the world itself. That being said, the visuals in the film are fantastic, from the look of the Tharks to the design of the airships to the wide expanses of desert mountains. Composer Michael Giacchino’s score to the film is appropriately reminiscent of John Williams’ original score to Star Wars without being a copy, and you can even hear a bit of his score to Star Trek (my review) every now and again, though I’m not holding that against him by any means. Giacchino keeps a perfect balance between bringing out the largeness and epicness of the adventure and capturing the intimate moments between characters, and his main theme is one of my favorites by him.

There are certainly aspects from the book that I think would have worked well for the film, namely the story being told from Carter’s perspective or the more episodic style of storytelling, but the absence of these elements didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film. In fact, the absence of these and other characters or story elements seen in the book helped to set the film apart as its own entity to be enjoyed. The important thing about this film is that it captures the heart of the source material without photocopying it from page to screen, and it does it in a way that is incredibly fun; the last half of the film, especially the few minutes just before the credits roll, are definitely my favorites. I should also mention that I liked Kitsch and Collins in the lead roles, but I also really liked Tars Tarkas as played by Willem Dafoe; he plays the character with a resolve that fits a character of his authority, but the compassionate side of the character also rings through, making him one of the best characters of the film. John Carter is not a perfect piece of cinema, but it’s good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best, with plenty of good humor, great action scenes, incredible special effects, and likable characters…and it’s certainly not deserving of all the negative criticism heaped upon it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance! I beg you!

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Michael Giacchino, here!


A Princess of Mars (1917) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
Princess of Mars

I was unfamiliar with Edgar Rice Burroughs or his character John Carter until the property came to my attention when Disney adapted the character for the big screen in the 2012 film John Carter. From the looks of the trailers, I was pretty darn excited for the film, but I never went and saw it, possibly due to the less-than-stellar reputation it was accruing at the box office, becoming Disney’s biggest flop ever. I gradually lost interest, but when Amazon offered the book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, by Michael D. Sellers, for free on my Kindle, I read through it feverishly, fascinated by the history of the film and its source material. Halfway through that book, I decided that I had to give John Carter and the people of Barsoom a chance…and, good gosh, am I glad I did!

A Princess of Mars is the first in an 11-book series about Civil War veteran John Carter, who is suddenly and inexplicably spirited to the planet of Mars, called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants. Carter soon realizes that the lesser gravity on Barsoom allows him to leap great distances and greatly multiplies his strength. However, he is soon captured by Tharks, Martians who have green skin, four arms, stand fifteen feet tall, and are known for being fierce warriors. His strength allows him to climb ranks among the Tharks and befriend Tars Tarkas, one of the Thark chiefs. Soon, an attack on the flying ships of Helium, a city-state populated by Red Martians who look identical to humans except for their red skin, introduces Carter to Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium and the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes on. Carter plans an escape with Dejah Thoris in order to return her to her people, but many obstacles stand in their way. Accompanied by Dejah Thoris and an ugly but faithful companion named Woola, John Carter faces friends, foes, and everything in between in his first adventure on Barsoom.

The first thing I noticed about this book while reading is the way Burroughs writes. His sentence structure, choice of words, and descriptive prowess all join together beautifully to form sentences that are almost romantic in their presentation; that is to say, not “lovey-dovey” romantic but expressive and artistic. All of these wonderfully composed sentences build into a story that carries with it the largeness of the world and the larger-than-life qualities of the characters within it. The story is more episodic than plot-based, with each chapter bringing Carter to a new place or introducing him to a new task or character, which makes sense since the story was originally published in monthly serials before being compiled into a book. These vignettes from Carter’s time on Barsoom aren’t disjointed, however, with everything flowing and connecting rather nicely.

There is a lot of appeal in this book, from the desire to be a hero like John Carter to the swashbuckling swordplay to the fantastical descriptions of Barsoom/Mars to the romance between Carter and Dejah Thoris. It’s a novel that transcends genres, with elements of science fantasy, romance, and Westerns all coming into play. A Princess of Mars gave me what is possibly the most fun experience I’ve had while reading in quite a long time, increasing my interest in the following ten sequels, the film (my review), and in Burroughs in general. If you want to have a great time reading, go read this. Now!

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

-Chad


John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (2012) – Michael D. Sellers

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

This book was offered as a free Kindle download several months ago on Amazon.com. When a friend of mine shared the link with me, I thought it sounded interesting, so I downloaded it and let it sit on my Kindle for quite a while before I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago…and found it incredibly interesting.

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood goes into the details of the history and struggle of Disney’s John Carter film (my review), based on the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, A Princess of Mars (my review), and why it failed the way it did at the box office. We learn about how the author initially came to create John Carter and how the first story became an 11-book series that inspired the likes of Ray Bradbury, Joe Shuster/Jerry Siegel, George Lucas, and James Cameron, among others. The author also tells us of Burroughs’ early efforts to get the books adapted for film which all failed.

I wasn’t terribly interested until Sellers got to the main topic, the Disney film, where he reveals all of the issues faced by the film in terms of creative control, marketing, and company interests, and other problems that all came together in a perfect storm, resulting in the bomb it ended up being for Disney. I wasn’t able to put the book down, reading several chapters every time I sat down with it. The amount of research done by Sellers, his obvious passion for the original Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, and his involvement with the film’s marketing and desire for it to do well is obvious, drawing me into the book even more.

I had just a couple of issues with Sellers’ writing, the first being the number of mistakes present in the Kindle edition of the book. These mistakes range from extra commas to improper formatting to word omissions to spelling errors and are actually quite numerous, but I am not sure if they are present in the paperback edition of the book as well. The other issue is with the overuse of rhetorical questions and leading questions. Oftentimes, these questions were questions that I was already thinking or otherwise did not need to be asked, so they were occasionally pretty obnoxious.

However, these problems were quickly forgotten the deeper I got into the book and the world of John Carter. Before I was even halfway through this book, I was looking forward to reading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and subsequently watching the film. Sellers’ research is thorough, and, in addition to telling the story of the film, he provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look into the world of film-making that is also fascinating. If you are at all interested in John Carter or even just in filmmaking, this book should interest you.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

-Chad


World War Z (2013)

NOTE: Review originally written for and posted at MovieByte.com. To see this post and check out the guys over at MovieByte, click here!
world-war-z

How does one judge a zombie film? I’ve personally never had any interest in the genre; in fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a zombie film or television show about zombies before now, excluding 2007’s I Am Legend (which I’m not counting because the “creatures” in the original book by Richard Matheson that the film was based on were actually vampires). It’s a genre that I’ve always been skeptical of, so I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to see World War Z…frankly speaking, the trailers didn’t make me at all interested. However, I finally saw it, and, guess what? Wow.

Based on the book by Max Brooks, World War Z focuses on Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who finds himself with his family when a pandemic strikes, throwing their home city and the entire rest of the world into disarray as the virus spreads. Gerry, who is a former United Nations investigator, uses his connections in the government to have his family evacuated to a safe haven on on US Navy vessel. Upon arrival, he is told that his talents are needed in order to find the origin of the virus so that a cure can be created, with the threat of his family being removed from the ship forcing him to comply. As he searches for answers, he must use both his brains and his brawn to survive the rapidly spreading pandemic in order to save the world.

I mentioned I Am Legend earlier because I was getting lots of I Am Legend-y vibes while watching the film: both stories essentially tell the story of a man fighting a world-destroying virus in search of a cure. This may seem pretty generic, but, as my best friend pointed out to me, there is even a moment in WWZ when Gerry wakes up hanging upside-down with blood dripping from his head and a piece of metal stuck in his body…sound familiar?  The zombies as presented in this film are remarkably similar in behavior to the creatures of the I Am Legend film adaptation, though, as I mentioned above, the creatures in the original book are actually intelligent vampires that are capable of speech. It’s easy to see the similarities between these two stories, but, honestly, I didn’t feel like this film was a direct rehash of the Richard Matheson classic.

One aspect of the film that I find particularly surprising is how much it makes me care for the characters. This genre of film is not one usually associated with high-quality drama, but its commitment to taking itself seriously and focusing on more than just action makes it more than just a summer zombie action flick. Gerry’s relationship and split with his family feels both genuine and, as a result, painful, as we’re forced to see them separate in such a volatile situation. Brad Pitt brings quite a bit to the role, with Gerry’s obvious dedication and commitment to the task at hand and to the people around him, even those he doesn’t know, bringing a depth to the character that didn’t need to be explained to be conveyed.

The film’s attention to detail is also admirable. At one point while we were on the US Navy ship, I saw people storing what appeared to be large framed paintings, which I took to mean that they were trying to preserve whatever culture and art that they could in the wake of this disaster. There are many subtleties along the same lines that appear throughout the film, which I appreciate quite a bit. The score by composer Marco Beltrami, which I admittedly haven’t purchased or listened through, worked well in the film, but the most compelling parts of the score in the context of the film are the moments in which there is complete silence aside from the on-site action; for example, there is one scene toward the beginning of the film in which Gerry and his family are running away from approaching zombies where all we hear is the sounds of the family running and of the chaos surrounding them. It’s a powerful device that isn’t always used well, but silence as a tool is put to good use several times here.

I asked at the start of this review how you can judge a zombie film – a genre that is meant to be full of blood, gore, and mindless action. Thankfully, I don’t have to answer that question just yet because, although this film has zombies in it, it is so much more than a “zombie film.” World War Z manages to surprise in a good way; it’s full of heart, suspense, and, heck, there’s some good action too, and it balances these aspects in a way that makes it better than your average summer blockbuster.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images


The Great Gatsby (2013)

I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school. I didn’t particularly dislike it, but the fact that I had to write three essays over the green light and its symbolism didn’t make me like it either. My anticipation for this film was little; I like Leonardo DiCaprio well enough, but Baz Luhrmann as director and rapper Jay-Z as the man in charge of the soundtrack for a film set in the 1920s didn’t fly well with me. Despite this, I re-read the book two days before I saw the film and decided that I liked it a lot more this time around since I wasn’t having to read it for school. I became anxious…would the film do the book justice? Thankfully, I had little to worry about, as The Great Gatsby is a fine adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic.

This story is told from the point of Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who moves to Long Island in New York, where he is the neighbor of the alluring, illustrious Jay Gatsby, a man whose past is as mysterious as his parties are extravagant. Across the bay lives Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), a man born into a rich family who is known to be in an affair with a woman from New York. As the summer goes on, Nick and Gatsby develop a friendship that leads to Gatsby revealing a secret: he is in love with Daisy and has been for five years. When Gatsby and Daisy reunite and pick up their relationship where it left off five years previously, chaos ensues as relationships become strained, accidents happen, and hope seems forever lost.

I hated the first 45 minutes of this movie. Everything seemed to be thrown into my face, one person after one event after one party after another, and I grew sick of it. The rap music fuels the parties, which I didn’t especially care for either. Of course, I can’t sit here and be unfair about all of this; every one of these aspects are results of creative decisions on the part of the director that make sense and probably worked for other people. This was the “Roaring 20s,” and all of this fast-paced delivery and bright color and extravagant music helps to emphasize the prosperity and free-spiritedness of the time. No, rap music wasn’t around in the 1920s, but I doubt that the inclusion of music from the 1920s would have communicated the wildness of these parties as well as the rap music does in this day and age, nearly 100 years later. I recognize all of this…but I just didn’t like it, and I was worried that the rest of the film was going to present itself in the same way.

But it didn’t. Once we become acquainted with Gatsby and move into his relationships with Nick, Daisy, and Tom, the film becomes a character study that I couldn’t get enough of. DiCaprio as Gatsby is perfect – he captures all of the optimism, all of the warmth, and all of the anxiety expressed by the character in the book, never going too far in an attempt to make the character believable. The other standout performance comes from Carey Mulligan as Daisy, who appeared on screen just the way I had imagined her in my head whilst reading. Tobey Maguire also does well as Nick Carraway, though I must admit that I was worried going into the film knowing that the story was told from his perspective…I had nightmares about Peter Parker doing the voice-over while we watched Gatsby throw his parties. But Maguire did fine and was thankfully not channeling his inner Peter Parker, though you could argue that he never did that in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films either…ha! There’s not much to be said about Joel Edgerton’s performance as Tom Buchanan except that he did an admirable job and that I liked the way he played the character.

Having read the book less than 48 hours in advance of seeing the film, I can personally attest to its accuracy to the original book, with much of the dialogue being directly quoted from Fitzgerald’s text. In fact, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that was significantly changed from the book, but the film still managed to not be a slave to the text, making itself stand apart as its own work of art while still capturing the themes of the novel. The symbolic green light, the light at the end of Daisy’s pier that Gatsby recognizes as the hope of being reunited with his lost love, is more present in the film than it is in the book, with it making several appearances throughout the duration of the movie. What’s more is that we hear the green light as well; every time it flashes in our view, we hear a single note swell from the instrumental score (composed by Craig Armstrong). One of my favorite parts of this film, though, is at the very end when we hear this note swell without seeing the green light – we’re hearing Gatsby’s flicker of hope that everything might still be alright in his future with Daisy, despite all that has just happened. It’s a powerful motif that resonates in both Gatsby and in the audience. The overall look of the film was dynamic and interesting, which I liked too.

Had the first 45 minutes of this film been different, so might my rating, but that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t a great film well worth your time. In all reality, I think that I’m in the minority of people who don’t care for the music in this film, with the obvious exception of Craig Armstrong’s instrumental score (which, sadly, isn’t being released as a purchasable album) and, curiously, a jazz-ified 1920s rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” that fits into the film quite well. DiCaprio’s performance is fantastic (though, sadly, I don’t think he’ll walk away with an Oscar for this one either), as is Ms. Mulligan’s, and it’s so true to the original themes of the book that any fan of Fitzgerald’s original novel should definitely give this a watch.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language


Life of Pi (2012) – Mychael Danna

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Mychael Danna sort of came out of nowhere for me. The first of his film scores that I’d ever heard of was his score for the 2011 film Moneyball, a score that was minimal but effective. A brief look at his Wikipedia filmography reveals other such scores as (500) Days of Summer, Capote, and Little Miss Sunshine, none of which are films that I’ve seen, let alone heard music from. Despite my unfamiliarity with Danna’s work, though, his score for Life of Pi is enjoyable and fits in nicely with the film.

The soundtrack opens with the track “Pi’s Lullaby,” which is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Though I don’t think it’ll win, its soothing vocals and relaxed accompaniment are nice to listen to. Bits of this track are heard throughout the score in different forms, building onto the character of Pi Patel with each occurrence. The sitar, a guitar-like instrument traditional in Indian music, is featured prominently in many tracks, emphasizing the heritage of our main character, but the Indian-inspired music fades with Pi’s family’s move to Winnipeg, Canada. In fact, in the track “Leaving India,” there is a moment when we hear bits of “Pi’s Lullaby” played by (what I think to be) the ney, a wind instrument that is often heard in Middle Eastern music, but this is taken over by a similar Western instrument, the flute.

Danna does an excellent job with incorporating vocals into the score to evoke emotion. For example, in the track “First Night, First Day,” we hear a low male vocal drone with a solo soprano line sung over it. Eventually, other female chorus members join in, giving the whole track an air of both remorse and mystery, alluding to Pi’s recent tragedy with the loss of his family and to his unknown future while stranded alone at sea. Another instance of good choral work is toward the end of “Back to the World,” in which we can sense Pi’s mixed senses of relief in returning to civilization and disappointment in the loss of Richard Parker.

Not all of this score is so depressing, though. “Piscine Molitor Patel,” which serves as the backdrop to Pi’s explanation of his name, features some schmaltzy accordions that fit in the with the bits of the story involving Paris and French (his first and middle names are derived from the name of a well-known public pool in France). As I mentioned in my review for Alexandre Desplat’s score for Argo, there is also a beatboxing segment in this track, a trait shared by both scores…unusual, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate for either film. Another “fun” track is “Flying Fish,” which comprises of a string melody that starts off light and bouncy and grows a little weightier as the track comes to a close.

While I do enjoy all of the music presented here, the reason that I don’t place it as high as Desplat’s score for Argo or Williams’ score for Lincoln (my review here) is because much of it is so repetitive. The same themes are presented over and over again from track to track, and, though this could be interpreted as a conscious decision on Danna’s part to emulate Pi’s increasingly mundane day-to-day routine in his music, I think that it is unnecessary. There are complex emotions and ideas presented in the film, and I think that the score could have done a better job of highlighting all of these.

That’s not to say that it’s not still a pretty great score, though. Danna has composed a score that generally fits the film well, and it’s certainly pleasant to listen to. The score for Life of Pi walked away with the Golden Globe, but I don’t think that it’ll get the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Who knows, though? I’ve been wrong before. It’s entirely possible that my view is skewed since I’m partial to Williams’ scores.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

1. “Pi’s Lullaby” 3:42
2. “Piscine Molitor Patel” 3:39
3. “Pondicherry” 1:12
4. “Meeting Krishna” 1:51
5. “Christ in the Mountains” 1:13
6. “Thank You Vishna for Introducing Me to Christ” 0:55
7. “Richard Parker” 0:54
8. “Appa’s Lesson” 1:06
9. “Anandi” 0:55
10. “Leaving India” 1:20
11. “The Deepest Spot on Earth” 0:48
12. “Tsimtsum” 2:49
13. “Death of the Zebra” 0:33
14. “First Night, First Day” 3:45
15. “Set Your House in Order” 2:10
16. “Skinny Vegetarian Boy” 2:16
17. “Pi and Richard Parker” 2:14
18. “The Whale” 2:02
19. “Flying Fish” 0:49
20. “Tiger Training” 1:22
21. “Orphans” 1:36
22. “Tiger Vision” 4:31
23. “God Storm” 3:42
24. “I’m Ready Now” 3:21
25. “The Island” 1:59
26. “Back to the World” 8:20
27. “The Second Story” 4:02
28. “Which Story Do You Prefer?” 2:05
Total Length: app. 66 min.
iTunes Album Link

-Chad


Les Misérables (2012)

I enjoy musicals. I have attended several performances of various musicals, and I have also participated in several musicals. That being said, Les Misérables is not a musical that I was familiar with at all aside from the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” (thank you, Susan Boyle). With all of the positive hype that the movie version was getting, I was prepared to dislike it…not that I wanted to or expected to, but I just embraced the possibility of really not enjoying this film. Thankfully, just the opposite occurred…Les Misérables is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel, this film tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who just finished serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to provide for his sister and her children. Upon release, the homeless ex-convict seeks shelter at a local church, where he is taken care of by the bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the originator of the role of Jean Valjean in the original Broadway production). Despite the bishop’s kindness, Valjean steals silver with the intent of selling it for money, but he’s caught and returned to the church. The bishop, however, tells the authorities that the silver was a gift, even giving Valjean more than he initially stole. It is this act of kindness that turns Valjean’s life around. The rest of the film follows him as he avoids his past and strives to live an honest life and to help others. This is the basis of the story, but there is much more that I’ll leave to you to discover when you watch the film for yourself.

Though Valjean is the main character and Hugh Jackman does a brilliant job with the role, there are other characters of note: Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a woman who struggles to provide for her child, gives an incredible performance and sings a beautiful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that will leave you in tears. I was also impressed with Samantha Barks as Éponine, the daughter of two mischievous inn owners (played amusingly by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who managed to pull at my heartstrings from the very first moment she appeared on screen. Also worth mentioning are Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.

The film as a whole is simultaneously gorgeous and grungy; it switches back and forth between the two when appropriate. The period setting of the film is well-done and quite believable. The most fantastic part of this film, though, is the live singing. In case you weren’t aware, the actors in this film did all of the singing that you hear in the film live on-set…the first film to ever do so, and it’s amazing. As a performer myself, I can attest to the fact that a live performance of a song carries much more raw emotion and feeling than a recording ever could, and it certainly shows in this film. We see everything from the anguish felt by Fantine as she struggles to understand why her life has become so miserable, to the despair that Valjean feels as he considers the possibility of losing Cosette to someone else, to the conflict felt by Javert as he struggles to justify the difference between his morals and his civil responsibility (though, I’ll admit, Crowe’s singing leaves much to be desired). If this film hadn’t been recorded in this way, not even half of the emotion would have been present because only so much can be expressed when lip-syncing.

It was the combination of the emotional live singing and the themes of forgiveness, the love of God, the love of others, and social injustice that made this film so powerful. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, despite the fact that it was getting rave reviews from most of my friends, but I walked away extremely satisfied…this may just be my favorite musical film of all time. The direction is fantastic, the acting is spot-on, the cinematography is beautiful, and (most of) the singing is top-notch. Les Misérables has set a new standard for the musical film.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements


Dr. No (1962)

James Bond is a staple of British cinema, a fact that I acknowledge despite my lack of familiarity with the character. Aside from the recent reboot of the franchise starring Daniel Craig, I had only seen one Bond film, Connery’s You Only Live Twice, which I don’t remember much of at all. With the success of Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film produced by Eon Productions, I thought it appropriate to return to the character’s roots with the very first Bond film, Dr. No, starring Sean Connery. Though this film just celebrated its 50th anniversary this past year, Sean Connery’s portrayal of the classic spy is just as entertaining as Daniel Craig’s…possibly even better, depending on your tastes.

Dr. No follows 007 as he investigates the disappearance of John Strangways, the Secret Intelligence Service Chief in Jamaica. He soon bumps into Felix Leiter of the Central Intelligence Agency, who had been working with Strangways on finding the source of some mysterious radio jams that  have been disturbing rocket launches from Cape Canaveral. Bond’s sleuthing eventually leads him to Crab Key, a local island owned by a mysterious man known only as Dr. No, a man who may end up being more than Bond bargained for.

Unlike the modern films featuring the character, this one presents Bond as more of a man of words than of action; he relies on his intellect to gather information and survive, making him a sort of present-day Sherlock Holmes. He shows his intelligence in many ways: he powders the lock of his briefcase and places a hair over the crack of a door in order to know whether they have been tampered with,; he sets a trap by fooling an attacker with pillows placed under bed sheets; and he counts the bullets of the men he fights with so that he has the tactical advantage (this latter example made me quite happy, as many times the bullet count is ignored). That’s not to say, however, that he doesn’t throw a few punches, shoot a few people, or participate in one or two car chases…he certainly does all of these things, but the only action present in the film is that which is necessary to further the story, rather than the films of today that use action scenes to show off a large budget or to add a few extra minutes to the total run time.

Connery’s Bond is also more suave than Craig’s. His initial introduction as the character with the now-classic “Bond, James Bond” appears to be more of a witty response to the woman who just introduced herself as “Trench, Sylvia Trench.” Dr. No is filled with quick quips and clever responses like this, including a joke to a woman he’s about to sleep with (who actually works for Dr. No) about how she “believe[s] in living dangerously…sitting around with wet hair, [she]’ll die of pneumonia” – which is funny because he had just overheard a phone call in which she promised to keep Bond from leaving her house, though she doesn’t know that. His humor certainly helps him with the ladies…of whom there are three in this film. He certainly gets around, doesn’t he?

Connery isn’t the only actor to brag about…Ursula Andress plays the very first “Bond girl,” Honey Ryder, with an air of innocence; instead of throwing herself at Bond as a love interest straightaway, she plays the character as someone who is wary of his charms before eventually falling in love with him after they’ve been through near-death experiences together. Andress’ performance is even more impressive when you consider that she is essentially a puppet; her voice was dubbed over by Nikki van der Zyl, which I only knew by reading – a true testament to the talents of Andress, Zyl, and to the sound crew for lining everything up so well. Of course, the title character, Dr. Julius No, played by Joseph Wiseman, is appropriately sinister in first his disembodied voice (we hear him before we see him) and later in his straight-faced, no-nonsense performance.

As much as I may rave about this film, I certainly had my qualms with it, most of which can be taken for a grain of salt. For starters, what happened to the “Three Blind Mice” murderers who kill two people in the beginning of the film and later try to kill Bond himself? They’re completely forgotten in the hunt for Dr. No. Also, while the idea of having a rumor of the existence of a “dragon” as a scare-away tactic for Crab Key makes sense, the way this rumor is presented is done poorly. Quarrel, a man helping Bond with his mission, identifies “dragon tracks” that are obviously tire tracks, and the “dragon” itself (a fire-spurting tank) looks nothing like something that could even be mistaken for a dragon. My last major complaint is over the ending…Bond is beat up and locked away, but within five minutes he has climbed through a vent, dressed as a worker, overloaded the nuclear reactor, and defeated Dr. No. It’s just a bit too easy for my tastes, and it certainly feels rushed.

Despite those small complaints, my first real experience with Connery’s James Bond is a pretty fantastic one. Sure, his abilities/luck might be a little over-the-top, but I think that M justifies this with a quote early on in the film: “If you carry a double-0 number, it means you’re licensed to kill, not get killed”…a theme that continues to stick with the character of Bond even today. This film introduces characters and concepts that remain prevalent in today’s installments to the franchise, such as Felix Leiter, Miss Moneypenny, M, the Aston Martin sports car, the Walther PPK gun, and SPECTRE as an organization. The musical score and main theme by Monty Norman are well-composed and appropriate to the scope of the story and character, and the classic feel of the film remains timeless. For a more intellectual, polished James Bond than Daniel Craig’s, you need look no further than Sean Connery’s wonderful performance here in Dr. No.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)


The Casual Vacancy (2012) – J. K. Rowling

Like most, I was introduced to J. K. Rowling through her highly successful Harry Potter series, which I first started reading as a 7-year-old second grader. Her writing is incredibly engrossing; for the last three books of the series, I sat and read them beginning to end in a day, stopping only to eat. Harry Potter framed my childhood, so, now that that series has ended and I’m an adult, I was quite excited to get my hands on a copy of JKR’s newest book. I purchased it on the day that it came out and read 150 pages fairly quickly. Though the content was very different, the way it was written was very familiar and readable. However, I was still unsure of where the story was going halfway through the book, and, now that I’ve finished, I’m at a loss for words…what exactly is my opinion?

For starters, The Casual Vacancy is NOT for children. With drug references, foul language, and several instances of sexual situations (for the most part, non-graphic), this book is definitely for adults. Though I said that the content is different, and it is, Jo’s study of her characters remains as consistent as it was in Harry Potter; even when I didn’t know where the story was going, I knew I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to learn more about these characters, of which there are several…off the top of my head, I can think of at least 13-15 characters with whom Jo spends plenty of time developing and fleshing out. Not all of them are lovable – in fact, most of them aren’t – but that’s what kept me reading most of the time. I wanted to know what was going to happen with Krystal Weedon and with her younger brother Robbie, I wanted to know who was going to fill Barry Fairbrother’s seat on the council, I wanted to know whether Andrew Price would ever score with Gaia Bawden…and so I kept reading, even when it wasn’t the story that left me thirsting for more.

In fact, the story isn’t the reason why you read this book. Unlike in the Harry Potter series, there isn’t a main character fighting an evil villain with a mission at hand; we’re reading about the ordinary lives of the people in Pagford and how they react to the death of one of the council members, and that’s pretty much it. So, like I said, it’s the characters more than anything that keeps you thirsting for more to read. Even when I only had twenty pages left of the book, I had no idea where it was going or how it would end. Personally, I found that fascinating, and I thought it was incredibly impressive of JKR to be able to hold my attention for that long without revealing anything, but I can see why someone would brand the whole book as “boring” after the first 50 pages and toss it aside.

The Casual Vacancy isn’t for everyone. I wish I could say that you’ll love it if you loved Harry Potter, but, since the two are so different, I can’t make that promise to you. If you’re okay with reading something that is more about characters than about story and with an ending that doesn’t really “end,” you should definitely give it a try. In fact, everyone should at least pick it up and try to read it; if you don’t like it, set it aside. The real treat here is to see JKR’s storytelling abilities in a world outside that of Harry’s, which I think that she does a splendid job with. With themes of poverty, rape, drugs, domestic/child abuse, self-harm, suicide, and politics all being discussed in the book, The Casual Vacancy isn’t a happy book, but it’s certainly compelling and poignant.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

-Chad