Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Review: Hugo

Even though the Academy Awards have come and gone, I still have a lot of the nominated movies to watch before I can render opinions as to whether or not the academy got it right (note: it is likely that they didn't because they never really do; Hollywood is so political it picks the "best" movies and actors about as well as Obama's administration balances a checkbook).  This process will take a long time as there were dozens of movies nominated, and to be honest I have no desire to see some of them.  However, I do intend to see all of the movies nominated for Best Picture and all the movies in which the actors and actresses who received nominations for their performances.

Going into the ceremony, I had only seen of the nominations for Best Picture The Artist (which won the award) and Midnight in Paris.  The movie that intrigued me the most of all the others that I had not seen was HugoHugo is the story of a orphaned boy living in a Paris train station who is trying to fix a complex machine he and his father had begun to repair before his father was killed in a fire.  Throughout the movie, Hugo is challenged to find his purpose in life and is lead to help other people he encounters to find theirs as well.

As a huge Scorsese fan, I held high expectations for the movie; however, I also reserved some doubt due to the fact that it is a much different kind of movie than any the director has ever taken part of prior.  As I watched Hugo, I witnessed the brilliance and genius of Scorsese manifest itself once again in the way that his characters not only told a story, but made the viewer contemplate the deeper, underlying messages of the movie.  It takes a special director to both entertain and challenge audiences, and Scorsese once again showed why he should be considered one of the best directors of all time in his depiction of Hugo.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hugo is the intense graphics, visuals, and effects the movie contains.  Not surprisingly, of the five Oscars that the movie won, three of them had to do with visuals and camera work (Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects; the other two were for sound: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing).  Scorsese, who is always willing to try something new with the camera, employed various camera tricks and ploys that made scenes more exciting and real to the viewer.  In a movie that examines and praises all that is good about movies, Hugo especially emphasizes the wonders that good camera work can bring to a film.

What I enjoyed most about Hugo, as I do in all of Scorsese's movies, is the underlying theme/message that the director is trying to convey to his audience.  It is well known that Scorsese does not do a movie that he doesn't feel is important or shares a thought-provoking message.  In Hugo, Scorsese takes on the question of purpose and whether or not each person has a purpose in this world.  The scene in which Hugo compares the world to a machine and explains that no machine has extra parts that it doesn't need, and therefore there are no extra people who serve no purpose, is perhaps one of the deepest scenes ever to involve a child actor.  It was absolutely brilliant.

The main question now is whether or not I think that Hugo should have won the Best Picture award over The Artist.  The answer to that question is a difficult one to reach.  However, as much as I enjoyed Hugo and look forward to watching it over and over again, I must admit that I agree that the academy was correct in awarding it to The Artist over Hugo (whether it deserves it over all of the others is yet to be determined).  That being said, I do think Scorsese was passed over once again for Best Director (this is a stance that might also change once I see more of the nominated movies).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining and brilliant series of books that I have ever read.  When the movie was announced, I was both excited and skeptical at the same time.  Excited because I could not wait to see certain events and objects portrayed on the big screen; skeptical because Hollywood has a tendency to change many aspects of a book's plot and enrage anyone who has read the book before seeing the movie.  After seeing the movie, both my excitement and skepticism were confirmed.  The movie was nowhere close to being as entertaining as the book, nor (I think) could it.

Do not get me wrong, as far as a movie goes, The Hunger Games was entertaining enough.  I think the movie makers did an exceptional job dulling down the violence (as much as is possible in a post apocalyptic world in which 24 children fight to the death) while getting the point across that this is an incredibly violent society.  However, while it was entertaining enough, there were so many parts of the games that were left out of the movie that I felt made the book as entertaining as it was.  The movie, like almost all movies based off of books, was inferior to the book because it eliminated so many aspects that made the book's plot famous.  I don't understand why they change these things, since it is these things that helped the book so popular that they could make it into a movie.

The casualties of the movie version were not limited to just parts of the plot.  Characters who played a significant role in the first Hunger Games book (and, furthermore, are of more importance in the later books) were not present in this movie or had their roles reduced to those of nonspeaking parts or insignificant cameo appearances.  For example, in the book Katniss receives her mockingjay pin from Madge, the mayor's daughter, after she is volunteers for the games.  This is an important component of her own character development and feelings in the later books.  In the movie, Madge does not even make an appearance; instead, Katniss gets the pin for her sister at the Hob (a kind of black market) and her sister gives it back to her when she leaves.  Another example is that of her prep team, who are obnoxious to her at first in the book, but become very important parts of her resistance in the second and third books.  When the next two movies are released, I will be very interested to see how they remedy the decision to diminish their parts in this first movie.

I do, however, realize that some things needed to be cut.  The movie is almost two and a half hours long as is and including everything would be near impossible (although they could pull a Twilight/Harry Potter deal and divide each book into two movies, but that of course is probably out of the realm of possibilities).  A few things that they did not cut that I found to be striking in the movie were the costumes that Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's stylist, designed for them.  While the computer animation of these costumes was painfully obvious, I enjoyed seeing the effects on the big screen because my limited imagination had a hard time picturing them while I read the book.

Perhaps the greatest part of the movie was the character development, an aspect of the book that I feel is its greatest quality as well.  This is sometimes hard to portray in a movie because it requires incredible talent on the part of the actors to bring it out.  Very rarely do I see a movie like The Hunger Games and feel like there is no weak actor in the cast.  There was absolutely no weakness in the actors of The Hunger Games; I felt that it was quite possibly the strongest cast they could have assembled for this movie.  While there are not many big-name actors (Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson are the biggest names in the cast), the young actors in the cast create  believable and stunning depictions of Suzanne Collins's characters.

Overall, I give the movie a 6.5/10.  I cannot overlook things that I feel are vital to the overall plot of the trilogy that were left out.  However, the action was solid and the character development was strong.  I certainly would watch the movie again, but the book is so much better than the movie and I will not be able to watch the movie without constantly critiquing and comparing it to the book.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay

So rarely is there any trilogy in which the books get better as the series goes on.  Usually trilogies tend to become boring, redundant, and drawn out past the point of being able to detect any trace of entertainment.  That being said, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining trilogies I have ever read.  Not only did it keep me up at night, turning page after page because I could not rest until my inquiries were resolved, it also made me ponder social issues, political beliefs, and the concept of human morality.

All of these themes come to a head in Mockingjay, the third book of the trilogy.  The rebellion has begun, Katniss is being asked to be the rebels' symbol, Peeta has been captured by the capitol, and the reader is led on a winding and twisting adventure of a young person coming to understand who she is and what is really most important in life.  This is a struggle that everyone can identify with on some level, although not everyone (hopefully) has gone through what Katniss has faced.

Admittedly, I did not like Katniss for 99% of the trilogy.  I have always thought she was a brilliant character in that her personality and development are masterfully portrayed throughout the series.  However, I always found her to be selfish, cold, distant, and cruel.  She, of course, has been through a great deal of tribulation, but I could not help but dislike her because she could not admit her flaws to herself.  It was always her against the world, a world that included everyone from the government to her own family at times.  In Mockingjay, she finally is able to admit that she needs help from others, that she has hurt people in ways that she never thought possible, and that she needs to change.  I feel like I could finally like her at the end.

The plot of this third book is not much different than the others.  There is no Hunger Games, but Collins portrays the war as a Hunger Games in and of itself.  The result is a fairly humanitarian view of war.  Mockingjay is also anti-Machiavellian, in that Collins makes it clear that she does not believe that the end justifies the means.  She also portrays the horrors and psychological affects of war in such masterful reality that the reader cannot help but feel sorry for anyone who has had to be in war.

I could go on forever about the positive aspects of this book, the depth of the characters, and the complexity of the themes.  However, such a post would turn out to be another book in and of itself.   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire

Last year, my literary world literally exploded when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I had not read a book that was so gripping, violent (yet not gory), disturbing (but not overly), and complicated all at the same time.  One might ask, "What's so complicated?  She takes her sister's place, the boy falls in love with her, kids kill kids, and she defies the government."  This is all true, but Collins captures a depth, a complexity in the character of Katniss Everdene that is rarely achieved by any author, ever.  In the first book, the reader was intrigued and drawn into Katniss's struggle.  Not only her struggle for survival, but for identity.  Due to the horrible situation that she is in, it is easy to forget that she is only a 16 year old girl (in the first book); she is still trying to find out who she really is.  As the second book, Catching Fire, begins, the reader is led further down the path she is traveling towards adulthood and maturity.

That being said, I HATE Katniss Everdene!  Let me explain: I do not hate her existence and I do not hate that she is the way she is.  In order for this series to be as entertaining as it is, Katniss must enrage the reader (or cause the reader to sympathize with her).  I am sure more female readers who are attracted to or can identify with the choices Katniss must make between two boys that she has feelings for will be more apt to sympathize with her.  But as a male, I cannot help but detest her.  I think she is selfish, rash, uncaring, and too impulsive. 

I realize, of course, that she is going through a difficult situation that I cannot by any means identify with; I have never been the face of a national rebellion nor have I had to fight to death.  Such a situation would certainly have psychological effects on a person, and while Collins does not mention them specifically, she portrays them in the character of Katniss (and the other tributes) masterfully.

Why then do I hate her?  I cannot help but feel that any friend she has, any selfless action she does, or any action left undone has an ulterior, selfish motive.  When she has to choose which boy to be with (and she will have to make that choice), she cannot choose and plays both of them like a set of fiddles.  Again, I know the circumstances; I know she did not choose for one of them to come into her life.  But he did, and she reciprocated his feelings, made him believe she loved him too.

Catching Fire is engrossing, entertaining, and simply a master piece.  All of these emotions the reader has about the characters are extended and built upon in the second book.  This is not a one chapter a day book; this is a "I must finish this book in at least two days or I will not be able to live on" books.

I realize I spent a lot of time on Katniss, and even though I don't like her, I love the fact the she exists in literature.  I am looking forward to finishing the trilogy so that I can better and more completely understand her.  When I do, watch out for the blog/essay that compares Katniss Everdene with Lisabeth Salander.

Book Review: Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

There are few books that I have read that have literally changed my life, Mere Christianity and the Bible being two of them.  I now have another book to add to that list: Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.  Keller, who is a Presbyterian minister, has an extensive philosophy background presents evidence and common sense observations for the existence and supremacy of God.  In my opinion, this is the best Christian defense written since C.S. published Mere Christianity.

It is probably not a coincidence, then, that Keller quotes Lewis's works extensively.  However, before you start to think that he only quotes Christian writers and pastors, you may be interested to know that the person Keller quotes the most is renowned atheist and theoretical physicist Richard Dawkins.  This is because the first half of the book is spent respectfully rebutting common misconceptions and issues people have about Christianity.  As a pastor in Manhattan, Keller has incredible experience ministering to skeptics and understands their doubts, as he confesses he also had the same doubts as a young college student.  Skeptics of Christianity will find Keller enraging, not because he is disrespectful to their argument (he is actually sympathetic and understanding), but because he challenges their worldview.

Christians will feel the same way.  No one likes being corrected or shown that there are flaws in their worldview, but Keller challenges all people, Christians and skeptics alike, to really examine their beliefs for what their foundations are.  Do you believe what you believe because you were raised that way?  Is your lack of belief the result of a horrid experience?  What is at the core of your foundation?  Reading the book exposes the reader to himself.  I found myself finding flaws in my own thinking with every turn of the page, not that what Keller writes is pure gospel, but that he is right.  He backs up his claims with Scripture as well as with writings from famous philosophers and writers, people respected by Christians and non-Christians alike. 

The biggest difference between Keller and other Christian philosophers like C.S. Lewis is that Keller writes in language that the everyday person can understand.  Lewis was a product of an intellectual family and prestigious education, and as such his writings, while beautifully written, contain language that the average person does not understand.  Keller, on the other hand, is the product of an average American upbringing and ministers to a diverse Manhattan population with a diverse range of educational levels.  Keller's book, as a result, is a work that all people regardless of education or religious background will be able to understand.

The most comforting thing about this book is that Keller points out that it is okay to have doubts; he even points to instances in the Bible where people doubted God's presence and power, and how God helped them through their doubts.  As a life-long Christian, I often felt guilty about doubts that creep into my heart; but as Keller points out, doubt is a wonderful opportunity to increase faith as long as you look for the answer to your doubts.  Doubts left unchecked destroy faith; doubts that lead to the discovery of correct answers can increase faith.

No matter where you are in your spiritual life, whether it be devout and faithful or faithless and skeptical, this book will be a challenge to your opinions.  It is not a bad challenge, though, because it works in you to understand your beliefs, whether you believe in God or not.  Keller presents his point of view much better than I can summarize it, so I highly encourage you to read this book.  It will change your life.  Guarantee it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Movies You Can't Not Watch

This morning as I was driving to work, the radio host brought up an interesting topic.  He had a list of 10 movies that a blogger claimed no man could see was on television and not watch.  Some of this guy's choices were excellent and true, such as The Godfather.  However, some of them were really dumb; what guy puts Gone With The Wind on his list of top 10 movies that he must watch if he sees it is on?!  He might as well put Pretty in Pink or Pretty Woman on his list.  He did have The Breakfast Club and while it is a good movie, I wouldn't call it a "guy's" movie and certainly not one that any man should stop channel surfing and watch.  A few callers chimed in a listed some alternative to put on the list; of course, I think I know better than all of them and made my own list.  Before you read it, let me say that there were some tough cuts and there will be an honorable mention list given as well.  These are not in any particular order, so don't think I'm saying that the #1 movie is better than #10, although it very well may be.  However, that is not the point.  So without any further ranting and needless build-up, here is my list of the top 10 movies any guy should stop and watch if he sees it on television:

1. Dirty Harry- If you turn the channel when you see this movie on, Clint Eastwood is going to show up at your house with a .44 and make your day.  Sure the special effects are old and the graphics leave a lot to be desired, but all that is overshadowed by the screen presence of Eastwood's tough, mean San Fransisco cop.  While we're on this subject, if you happen to see of the sequels on television, watch those too.

2. Field of Dreams- I think the show How I Met Your Mother made it perfectly clear that all men must watch this movie (in the episode where Robin calls it a stupid movie and all the guys get offended).  No, it's not an action movie.  Yes, it has a touching plot.  But you cannot be a man and not have some kind of attachment to this movie.  If you don't feel you do, then get your purse and go get your mammogram.

3. Blazing Saddles- There is only one reason to change the channel if this movie comes on: if it is an edited version.  Most t.v. versions of this movie leave out the classic bean/fart scene.  Stupid humor, perhaps; but that doesn't change the fact that it is funny every single time.  If it comes on and it is not edited, you better not change the channel or I will question the presence of your schnitzingruben.

4. Saving Private Ryan- I know it's long and I know television editors will take a lot of the gore out; but it is still one of the best movies ever and amazingly depicts the bond that can form between men who fight side by side.  Don't make Tom Hanks journey for days, killing Nazis, to find you and make you watch the movie.  He won't be happy and Vin Diesel's character can only die once (unfortunately).

5. The Godfather- The blogger hit the nail on the head here.  What isn't there to like about his movie?  It's got everything a guy could possibly want in a movie.  In addition, it has just about everything any movie lover would want.  Good acting, good plot, and plenty of twists and turns.  What would be even better is if you got the second one on right after it.  Yes, it would take all day to watch, but if you don't you might find a horse head in bed with you when you wake up.

6. Unforgiven- Yes, another Clint Eastwood movie.  It's not my fault he made a ton of movies that appeal to guys and that they happen to be good movies overall.  This one has the Best Picture Oscar to prove it (it's 1 of 3 Westerns to win best picture).  Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris; need I say more?  Four of the best men's men who ever acted in a movie put together into one production, and you have yourself a classic.  Don't make Eastwood come out of retirement to blow your head off for not watching, this movie shows he's capable of it.

7. Shawshank Redemption- Whether any guy will admit it or not, we all think about busting out of prison even if we are not in prison.  For whatever reason it is just something that every guy would like to do sometime (without committing the crime to get himself into prison; and not have to go through the part with the Sisters).  I know there's no graphic violence and no women, but they are not needed to make this movie awesome. 

8. The Outlaw Josey Wales- Okay, I know; this is the third Eastwood movie on here.  But like I said, the guy makes good movies.  I have easily seen this movie 30 times in my life.  Yes, it is long, but it is a phenomenally good movie.  Not only that, but the kid that rides with him at the beginning looks like a young Larry Bird.

9. Ocean's 11- I know that the new one is pretty good, but the one I'm referencing here is the original.  You know, the one with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and the rest of the rat pack.  No list of guy's movies would be complete without the Rat Pack.  This is back when it was cool for guys to sing and dance.  There are no cool spy/master criminal effects, but it is retro Hollywood and takes us back to when men were much more cooler than they are today.

10. The 3 Stooges- They just don't make comedies like they used to, and the Stooges are by far and away funnier than anything today.  If you are in a room with guys when any of the Stooges' shorts come on and you change the channel, I hope they go all Moe and Larry on you. 

Honorable Mention: Rocky (only the first one); Pulp Fiction; Young Frankenstein; The Matrix (again, only the first one); The Departed (it pained me to not put it in the top 10); Happy Gilmore; Caddyshack; Raiders of the Lost Ark