Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Expendables (Movie Review)

Having given his Rocky and Rambo franchises one last successful hurrah in recent years, Sylvester Stallone decided to put a nice and tidy bow on the over-the-top 1980s action movie phenomenon with his self-directed homage to the genre, The Expendables.

Stallone gathered up some of his old and new action buddies for a fun romp of a film that could have been lifted straight out of of 1985. A few of his 80s action rivals, such as Bruce Willis and "the" Arnold, make small, tongue-in-cheek cameos in the film. But, of the well-known 80s stars, it seems only Stallone's pharmaceutically enhanced, leathery body was capable of the punishment this action-heavy movie would produce.

So, bring in the new blood. Jason Statham and Jet Li are the closest friends to Stallone's character in the movie and they get the most screen time. The other action-ready expendables are made up of Randy Couture, of mixed marital arts fame, and the hulking Terry Crews, of the Old Spice commercials. Mickey Rourke attempts to steal the award for most leathered and steroid enhanced but he only plays a retired member of the crew who gets to cry, tattoo, and give advice.

Dolph "I will crush you" Lundrgren is the loose-cannon of the group who has fallen on hard times and can not be trusted. He plays a small, but pivotal role in the film.

If you've seen any 80s action film you know the general plot of this film. It goes something like this: bad dictator, people in danger, things and people get blown up, heroes come in, bad people and bad things get blown up, drink beer to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Stallone does inject a little heart and sappiness into the story so it's not all guts and glory but for the most part it's lots and lots of action.

Two memorable moments stood out for me from the film. The first was Terry Crews' ridiculous gun. If you have seen the movie Predator, you may remember the amazing gun that Jesse "The Body" Ventura utilized to mow down half of the jungle. Well, Terry Crew's gun is that set to a 11. When he shows up with it and literally starts eviscerating people, well, it's a thing of pure beauty.

Before I chronicle that other amusing part of the movie, I have to mention that Stone Cold Steve Austin plays a heavy for the bad guys. He kind of skulks around and is menacing and you know that sooner or later he is going to battle it out with the expendables. He actually has one hell of a fight with Stallone that ends in kind of a stand still but I think Stone Cold got the better of Rocky.

However, this is not the last man-to-man fight that Steve Austin has in the film. Nope, out of nowhere he has a quick and brutal confrontation with Randy Couture. Now, Couture is by now means a main person in the expendables crew. He has a few amusing lines but for the most part he's just another body in the group. But, in real life he was a legitimate badass college wrestler and as soon as he started mixing it up on screen with one of the most famous WWE, a la fake, wresters of all time, I thought the outcome would be extremely interesting.

In any other action movie, a main bad guy like the one Austin was portraying would have quickly and brutally killed Couture's character in order to have a real emotional scene of the villain killing a likable good guy. Yet, in an obvious attempt at stating to the world that a real wrestler would never lose to a fake wrestler, even in a fantasy, macho-male action movie, Couture bests Stone Cold in a shockingly quick and nasty way. I laughed out loud at the audacity of the scene but it was still highly entertaining.

The Expendables is a great throwback film and I think Sylvester Stallone succeeded in what he set out to make. I actually hope he's able to make a sequel or two as all the characters are really enjoyable to watch and things blow up real good.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Hunger Games (Book Review)

Following the Harry Potter and Twilight books, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is the next huge book series aimed at young adults. Like the Potter and Twilight phenomenon, The Hunger Games is taking the world by storm and is reaching all ages of readers and appeals equally to girls and boys.

The series has a great set-up. We are in the not-too-distant future and the area of the world that used to be North America has been ravaged by war and the human race has been severely reduced. However, there is still a semblance of society and civilization. The world of the book is run by a city known as The Capitol. Imagine a wheel with spokes and The Capitol would be placed at the center with the 12 districts it oversees fanning out around it.

The Capitol rules with an iron fist and takes what it wants from the districts. It keeps them in line with a strong security force. In the recent past, the districts attempted an uprising but were subjugated. As an ongoing punishment and reminder of the district's place as servants to The Capitol, the hunger games were created.

Each year, a lottery is held in each district and one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to battle to the death with the other districts' unfortunate participants. The games are gladiatorial contests to the death and each year they are staged in different natural arenas that are not only pitted with weapons for each competitor to use, but also unspeakable death traps and grisly surprises.

The book opens with our heroine, Katniss. She, like all members of district 12 is living one day at a time. Her district is the mining area of the empire and is a backwater afterthought. The residents eek by on meager rations and Katniss and her good friend, Gale, help their families survive by hunting illegally in the woods outside of district boundaries.

The hunting lifestyle has made Katniss into a talented archer and a very resourceful and strong-willed young woman. Katniss cherishes her family more than anything and when the inevitable lottery comes around again in her 16th year, she dutifully approaches the town square to hear who the unlucky girl and boy will be.

When her 12-year-old, younger sister, Prim, has her name announced, Katniss does the only thing she can to save her, she volunteers to take her place in the hunger games. All seems lost for Katniss but she discovers she has an interesting history with the boy selected next to her. Peeta is her age and she doesn't really know him that well. However, Peeta knows Katniss better than any other living person as he has secretly loved her since the first day he laid eyes upon her.

Thus, Katnis and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol to begin their training for the hunger games. Katniss has to say goodbye to not only her family, but her dear friend, Gale, who she never quite sorted out her feelings for. Gale has been her steady friend for years and she has always been so concerned with what her next meal will be that she's never considered him as anything else until she is forced to leave him, in all probability to die.

Because, make no mistake, Katniss and Peeta will not be favorites to survive the games. Only one child wins and the districts closer to the capitol are better fed and their kids are better trained. Only one child from the last 30 years has won from district 12. That child, now a drunken man called Haymitch, will actually be their mentor at the games and this doesn't seem in anyway an advantage.

That's all the details I'm getting into. I wanted to paint a picture of the world and give you an idea of where the book is headed. The games are even more cruel and amazing then you would think for a young adult novel. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch are a dysfunctional group who argue and stumble through the pre-game ceremonies and training. Yet, they manage to bond and they quickly realize that they will all need each other if anyone is to survive.

There is real emotion involved once they reach the Capitol. These are just children that are being forced to murder or be murdered in turn. It's brutal and it is draining to watch them stare their mortality in the face. But, through all the tragedy, there is heroism, generosity from unexpected places, and love.

I've actually finished the entire trilogy and it is exceptional. There's no way to go into details without spoiling major story and character revelations. I hope your curiosity is piqued and you give the books a chance. I know you will love them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Despicable Me (Movie Review)

I really didn't know what type of movie to expect with Despicable Me. I knew the main character, played with an Eastern European accent by Steve Carell, was some sort of super-villain. I figured this probably meant that the villain would start off real nasty and by the end of the film be redeemed and all cuddly-like.

Well, I wasn't far off in my prediction. The main character, Gru, is indeed the most heinous villain on the planet at the start of the film but right away he's upstaged by a new villain. Unable to let this stand, Gru sets in motion his grand plan to steal the moon that will make him the greatest villain in history.

Gru and his new tracksuit wearing nemesis start competing with each other and along the way, Gru picks up three orphaned girls in a scheme to infiltrate his hated rival's lair.

There are plenty of comedic moments throughout the film. Most of the laughs are supplied by Gru's little yellow henchmen. They are constantly banging into things, making funny noises, and bumbling through their tasks. Gru's nemesis is pretty amusing as well.

The heart of the film involves Gru's icy nature slowly melting away while he has the three girls in his house. At first, he simply tolerates them for his plan but he begins to enjoy their company and by the end, he's smitten.

Despicable Me is solid animated offering. This isn't exactly Pixar-level entertainment we're talking about here but it's great for all ages and it's a film that will make you feel good when you finish it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (Movie Review)

My family and I recently watched one the bigger animated movies from last year, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. Yes, that is a very long title and in case you fell asleep halfway through reading it, the movie has owls in it.

If up to this point, you've hardly paid attention to Legend of the Guardians — henceforth to be known in this blog as the owl movie — I can completely sympathize with you. When I first saw the trailer for the owl movie, I literally snickered and I'm not really a snickerer. Seriously, some studio executive wants me to see talking CG owls with battle armor? No. No, I will not, sir.

But, then the movie came out and while it didn't break any records or win any awards, it impressed a lot of critics and reviewers so I was willing to give it a shot.

Right away you notice that the movie is a CG extravaganza, a feast for the eyes. You owe it to yourself to view it on the best and biggest TV you can find. The owls really work as characters and the flying sequences over beautiful vistas are really something to behold. The visuals are worth a purchase or rental by themselves.

The story is actually quite interesting too. They aren't breaking any new ground with a story about a young owl who is taken out of his mundane life and thrust into the extraordinary and he eventually becomes a hero. It's Luke from Star Wars and hundreds of other hero characters throughout fictional history. It is a well done hero story though.

Unfortunately, there are gaping plot holes and logic jumps throughout the film. Characters separated early in the film get back together in the most absurdly forced ways. I can literally see the storyboard meetings for the film where they had these amazing action sequences ready to animate but they really needed character X to be with character Y so they just make it happen. It's insane at times how poorly written the script is when it comes to reunions and character relocations. X needed to be with Y so let's put them together, the audience will never notice we just did a little movie magic. Well, I noticed and it took me right out of the film in several spots.

The movie is pretty dark, both in visual style and in theme. These are owls tearing each other apart so be warned if you have little ones. My girls did pretty well with it and we just had to keep reassuring them that the good owls would be OK and the one's with the glowing red eyes are just really grumpy.

Oh, I also need to mention that the songs in the movie are by the group Owl City. I love it. How much more on the nose, or beak, can you get.

Friday, January 14, 2011

One Day (Book Review)

About 90% of the way through One Day, I couldn't wait to finish it so I could log on to my blog and just blabber on incessantly about what a great romantic novel I had just read. Now, after finishing the book, I'm very torn as to what type of review to post.

I hate spoiler reviews. I really hate them for books because it is just so hard to get someone to sit down and read a book — literally dedicate hours and days of their lives — when they already know the major plot points beforehand.

With this in mind, I've come to a crossroads. Do I talk about the book openly and tell the experience I had with it, or, do I talk in broad strokes and try to get someone else to pick it up and read it? I think the surprising answer for me is that I need people to read this book so I can't spoil it.

One Day has a nice story set-up. Emma and Dexter, the main characters, graduate college and it is the day after, July 15th, 1988, to be exact. For the rest of the book, we come back and examine them on this exact day, July 15th. That's it, that's all we get. The reader gets to glimpse them for just the single day a year for the next fifteen years.

It's an ingenious set up and the author, David Nicholls, really makes it work. On the surface, it sounds a lot like the movie, When Harry Met Sally but it is so much deeper than that. I'm going to leave the details of the characters' relationship vague because I want you to discover it. I unfortunately started the book with a preconceived notion of what I thought I was going to read and was surprised by what I found.

Both characters have flaws and good points. Dexter is particularly hard to like at times but is always charming. On the surface, Emma seems uptight and bookish but she continually surprises with some of her actions. I was constantly rooting for them even when they seemed horrible for each other. I wanted them to succeed so badly at everything they attempted and it's heartbreaking to see them fail.

Nicholls does a good job of filling in the blanks of what happened in-between July 15ths. Actually, he's quite good at it and really sly at times. He'll stick in a line here or there foreshadowing something to come  or sometimes he'll very quietly touch on a major life milestone that happened 'off camera' and I was always pleased at how eloquently he got the information across without having to put it in blinking lights.

Don't let this fool you though. Stuff happens on July 15th. A lot of stuff happens. Some of it will make you smile. A lot will warm your heart. A little will make you cringe. I even found myself getting mad and upset at certain points. But, I can't get mad at the story that David Nicholls unfolded and I'm extremely happy I gave his book a read. I think you should as well.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Going the Distance (Movie Review)

Going the Distance is an interesting movie. Sometimes, interesting is a really good thing. Inception is a very interesting movie, for instance. However, used in the context of Going the Distance, interesting is not a positive.

I knew before watching that Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, the hip guy from the Mac commercials, were/are a real life couple. So, it's very interesting that I didn't feel any spark from them on screen. Sure, they kiss real good and stuff but for a couple slowly falling in love I just felt cold towards them.

Barrymore's character wants to break in to the the newspaper business while Long is toiling away in the recording industry. Neither is happy in work or in love so when they bump into each other at a bar, the sparks don't exactly fly. In fact, their first meeting ranks as one of the most awkward, unromantic, and forced scenarios I've seen on film.

Barrymore plays her role very hard for most of the movie. By hard I mean that she comes off as unemotional and uninterested by anything that is happening to her. Long, on the other hand, is at least given amusing friends to banter with and show some personality.

The couple knows up front that they only have a short time together because Barrymore is leaving for San Francisco to finish up school. After the obligatory 'we're falling in love' montage, she eventually leaves and since I never bought the romance to begin with, I hardly cared.

One important thing to note is that the movie is pretty filthy language-wise which surprised me. I expect explicit talk about genitals and sex when I watch a movie like The Hangover or The 40-Year-Old Virgin but it was really out of place here. It's never funny when the characters start talking this way and it's pretty embarrassing to watch.

If you've seen the trailer for the film, you've seen 90% of the best comedy the movie has to offer. There are a few other chuckles to be had from the friends of the couple but that's about it. There are certainly worse romantic comedies out there that have made way more money. Going the Distance does try to be a little original in the romantic genre but it fails mostly. Laughs are to be found that make it worth seeing on cable TV but until then, give it a pass.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Easy A (Movie Review)

I had read good things about the movie, Easy A. I read the lead actress, Emma Stone, was charming and perfect in her role as a girl who tells a little white lie about losing her virginity and finds herself becoming her high school's version of Hester Prynne, she of the scarlet A, from Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

After reading such nice words, I watched the trailer and was immediately filled with dread. One of the things I dislike most in literature and movies are clichéd characters and Easy A seemed to feature one these characters I hate the most; the bitchy, bullying, most popular, holier than thou school girl. Like, totally!

I gave the movie a chance even with my reservations and I'm so very glad I did. Easy A is very smartly written. One of the major points of the movie is to take down these clichés and tired story tropes. Olive, Emma Stone's character, constantly acknowledges how absurd her situation is and how beyond normal sense the people around her are acting.

In other words, her character reacts exactly how you or I would act if we plopped down in one of these movies. We'd laugh in the bullies' faces and blow them off and this is exactly what happens in the movie and it is great.

Even though Easy A uses The Scarlet Letter as a jumping off point, this is a comedy. I found myself smiling the whole time. Her parents, especially her dad played by Stanley Tucci, are possibly the coolest parents ever on film.

As Olive's reputation gets more absurd and the rumors get out of hand, the movie still manages to be very sweet and endearing and that's quite an accomplishment considering how nasty all her fellow students are towards her.

Easy A was a pleasant surprise and a great way to kick start my 2011 movie watching.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Top 5 Video Games of 2009/2010

It takes me a long time to get around to playing video games. I seem to average around 6 months to a year after they originally release before I get my hands on them. Because of this, I played a lot of the best games of 2009 in 2010.

I also didn't play a ton of games in 2010. The reason will become clear when you get to my #1 game. On to the list.

5. Limbo
This came out on Xbox Live Arcade during the summer. It's a very short game but one of the most original and atmospheric games you'll ever come across. The whole game is in shadow and the puzzles are twisted and brutal. It's a left to right side scrolling game but calling it simplistic misses the mark completely. I also should mention that it's creepy as hell.

4. Wii Sports Resort
This is the first game on the Wii that utilizes their motion plus technology. It's a far superior game to the original Wii Sports in every aspect. There are more sports and they're better implemented. I sunk way too much time into frisbee golf. Also, my daughter, Kaylee, figured out how to Wii bowl which makes this daddy proud.

3. Shadow Complex
Another original Xbox Live Arcade title, Shadow Complex shows that there is no limit to what can be done with a downloadable game. It's a cross between Metroid and Castlevania where you have to do a lot of backtracking once you get more powerful weapons. This is a good thing. It's challenging. The shooting is fun and accurate. And, for a downloadable game, it's artistically quite striking.

2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
I covered this pretty extensively already in an earlier post. The game is cinematic and epic in scale. You feel like you are playing an Indiana Jones movie. I would have never thought another game could have beat this for game of the (two) years.

1. Red Dead Redemption
But, then there's Red Dead Redemption. Remember how I said I didn't play many games in 2010. Blame Red Dead. I sunk like 50 hours into this amazing western game. I hunted animals for hours, killed outlaws, watched the amazing story unfold, and just generally became enraptured by the entire world that was created. The ending shocked me. I still can't believe what they did to one of my favorite characters of all time. I got my revenge though! See what I mean? Such a great game and story that it became personal.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Top 5 Movies of 2010

The necessary disclaimer first. I considered all movies I personally saw in 2010. With that in mind, some that came out in 2009 snuck into my top 5. Alas, I haven't seen any of the late 2010 contenders for the best picture Oscar. Sorry, True Grit, Black Swan, Social Network etc.

My list is still pretty solid.

5. How to Train Your Dragon
I just saw this with the family. I was blown away by it. I usually don't regret not seeing a movie in 3D but this looks like it would have been amazing on the big screen in 3D. It's a fun, well-written movie that is great for the whole family. Also, it has Craig Ferguson in it doing a major character so that's top 5 material already.

4. 500 Days of Summer
The ending bummed me out a bit but it didn't alter my feelings for the rest of the movie. Jason Gordon Levitt is one of the great young actors. He elevates all of his movies. His acting is tremendous as he goes through love and heart break. Of course, there's also the amazing musical number featuring Huey Lewis's The Power of Love with a winking cameo appearance by Han Solo.

3. Inception
Well, hello there again Mr. Gordon Levitt. While you didn't make Inception the blockbuster it turned out to be you certainly didn't hinder it. No, what sets this movie apart are the mind bending dreams and killer heist sequences. I read everywhere how people wanted to see this movie again right away. For me, once was enough. I got it. It was fantastically twisted and leaped right to the top of my favorite movies.

2. Toy Story 3
The end of this movie emotionally effected me more than any movie I can ever remember seeing. First, the toys are in mortal peril at the trash dump and then, less than twenty minutes later, Andy is faced with what to do now that he's heading off to college. Seriously, that last scene between Andy and the little girl wrecked me. A beautiful, thrilling, and surprisingly emotional movie. Toy Story 3 is a grown man's Beaches.

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The chances are you didn't see this. For whatever reason, Scott Pilgrim was largely ignored by the movie going public. Michael Cera fatigue? Perhaps. Weird, comic booky sequences that were hard to make sense of? I can see that. However, for me and the other loyal fans, this movie is pure bliss. I grew up in the 8-bit video game era and this movie not only speaks to me, it sings a freaking opera. The comedy is pure gold. I always laugh hysterically when Cera launches himself through the window to avoid his ex-girlfriend. The special effects I would put up against anything else that came out this year. And, then there is that soundtrack. My goodness, that amazing, note perfect soundtrack. The music makes this movie for me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Top 5 Books of 2010

I didn't exactly set any records in 2010 with the amount of books I read. Books never seemed to make the cut when I had a moment of free time. I'm expecting this to change this year with my new Kindle (thanks, wifey).

So, I didn't read much but I certainly read quality. Here are the top 5 books I read in 2010.

5. What the Dog Saw
Read my previous post, here, to get more in depth coverage of this fascinating book. Malcolm Gladwell is a man with questions. He wants to know why something is the way it is and he usually finds that what at first appears to be luck or coincidence, can be broken down to certain rules and consistencies.

4. Heart-Shaped Box
I already praised this book to death, get it, death. Ha ha...ahem. It's clever. It's very well written. But, most importantly, it's spooky and creepy as anything I've ever read. I never thought a book could really really freak me out. I was wrong.

3. The Monster of Florence
A true crime story about a forgotten serial killer that turns into real world drama as the authors get caught up in the corrupt Italian justice system. Anybody that is following the Amanda Knox trial in Italy may recognize the lead prosecutor trying to put her away. It's the same bully who questioned Preston and forced him out of the country.

2. Under the Dome
I haven't read a ton of Stephen King but the few I've read over the years have been pretty great. Under the Dome is one behemoth of a book but it's worth the time. The dome is like the Island in Lost. Sure, you want to know why it's there and the mysteries behind it but you keep reading because of the people trapped underneath. Yes, there is the over-the-top, evil used car salesman/councilman but the clichés really didn't bother me. Incredible awful things happen to the people in the town but there are also some pretty rewarding payoffs throughout.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Yes, I'm a sheep. Baaah. I've joined the millions and millions of readers throughout the world who've became enthralled by Lisbeth Sanders, she of the tattoos, computer hacking, and general badassery. Her supporting character, the dogged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, isn't too shabby in his own right. This is the best book of the trilogy because it not only introduces the world and mysteries that the reader will live in for two more extraordinary books, but this particular book also has one of the best serial killer mysteries in modern day literature. Come on, be a sheep like me. Read these books. The world is waiting for you to join us. Baaaaah.