August 29, 2016

Movie Monday: Hell or High Water


I had high hopes for this bank robbers film set in West Texas. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are robbing branches of Texas Midlands Bank to get the money to pay off the reverse mortgage on their recently deceased mother's ranch. All they want is $43,000, so they can make low pressure robberies that don't even open the vault.

Hell or High Water follows both the brothers and their biggest obstacle: two Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. All they have to do is narrow it down to which branch of Texas Midlands Bank will be hit next.

I enjoyed the way the story twisted and turned, revealing more about the brothers' motivation and master plan as well as the work friendship between the Rangers. Both sets of partners are antagonistic but fond.

West Texas is a very different place from where I live in Texas, but I know oil workers and they are hurting right now. Combined with the collapse of the housing market, many people have lost their homes. It's easy to see why even a lawyer might want to stick it to the banks, or why a waitress might be won over by a large tip.

Yet something about Hell or High Water left me cold, despite the solid story and performances. It's perhaps too slick, and needs to take a bit of gritty inspiration from its setting. It's a good movie, but more one that might catch your attention when it comes on cable.  But there's some missing element that keeps me from calling it great.

August 15, 2016

Movie Monday: Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon in 1977
The 1977 Pete's Dragon was my sister's absolute favorite movie when we were growing up. That meant that I hated it on principle and threw a fit every time she made me watch it. (I would get my revenge with The Lion King, which I think we can all agree is the superior movie.)

When I got a chance to see the new version with a Q&A after with writer-director David Lowery I decided to go for it, if only to taunt my sister with it. (All she really cared about when I told her was if it would break her Pete's Dragon-loving heart.)

The remake has very little in common with the original, aside from being about a young orphan named Pete who is companions with a dragon named Elliot who is sometimes invisible. This has its upsides and downsides. There's little point in a remake that simply retreads the original. At the same time, it feels a bit silly to even call this movie a remake.

The new Pete's Dragon starts with a rather wrenching car wreck that leaves Pete an orphan. The camera stays focused on Pete during the actual wreck, but it is still a harrowing sequence. Young Pete is left stranded in the woods near Millhaven, Oregon. His only companionship for the next several years is Elliot, the dragon who helps him survive. While this avoids comparison with the original, it invites comparison to both Tarzan and the Jungle Book, both of which had new movie versions come out this year.

Pete returns to civilization when a logging operation brings people close enough for him to encounter a kindly park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). What follows is a fairly predictable tale of finding family that builds up to some explosions for the finish. The story feels very by the book.

However, Pete's Dragon isn't devoid of flair. The film was shot in New Zealand, and the sweeping vistas of endless green forests make a silent but powerful case for the movie's environmental message. The soundtrack might not have the inimitable Helen Reddy, but it does have a lovely folk tune woven throughout that will worm its way into your head. The cast is game, from Wes Bentley and Karl Urban playing two brothers at odds to Robert Redford as Grace's father. Oakes Fegley (Pete) and Oona Lawrence (Natalie, a new friend) both do a wonderful job of interacting with Elliot and making it seem as if a dragon were really on set.

Don't go into Pete's Dragon expecting a retread, but don't go in expecting something staggeringly original either. Go in expecting a beautiful film with strong performances that is suitable for most of the family. (Some sequences might be intense for very young children.) I don't think my sister will be heartbroken.

August 3, 2016

Review: Day Zero

Day Zero Companion book to the Arcana Chronicles
By Kresley Cole
Available now from Valkyrie Press
Review copy

The fourth Arcana Chronicles novel, ARCANA RISING, comes out later this month. In anticipation, Kresley Cole has released DAY ZERO. This companion novel contains profiles of each of the Arcana and Jack, including nicknames, powers, weapons, tableau, unique characteristics, and who they were before the flash. The Fool's file is heavily redacted and The Hanged Man's is completely blacked out since that character isn't known yet.

The meat of this companion book is the short stories that accompany the profile of each character who is still alive. Cole writes about what they were doing on Day Zero, when the Flash destroyed most of humanity. Evie's is the longest, which is a bit of a cheat since hers is the relevant passages from THE POISON PRINCESS (my review). Fans will be particularly interested in Aric and Jack's stories, and I did love that Jack's explains part of why he was such a jerk at first. Cole wisely begins and ends DAY ZERO with their sections.

However, they weren't the standouts for me. Many of the shorts involve romance, which isn't surprising since that is the genre where Cole got her start. (And is, of course, still active with her Immortals After Dark series.) Circe's is passionate and sad and makes me wish that her love story gets an eventual happy end (even though I know it won't happen). Sol's is likewise tragic. Calanthe's turns surprisingly sweet, and Selena's is full of deserved wrath. I thought Tess's was a strong end to the minor character stories, with a beautiful scene of parental love.

DAY ZERO contains spoilers for the three Arcana Chronicles already available, and is truly geared towards fans only. I don't think Cole is shortchanging them. Fans can happily pick up this companion book without feeling they're only getting information regurgitated from the novels. The stories do a wonderful job of bringing more personality to each of the Arcana, even the awful ones (Richter, ugh). It makes their inevitable deaths in the games more upsetting. She lets each of her antagonists be people who all have their own hope of being the hero.

August 1, 2016

Movie Monday: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I've seen a lot of great movies this year, because it has been a great year for film. One of The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best movie I've seen so far, but each is so different that it is hard to choose.  

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, at its heart, is a story about finding family through difficult journeys. That schmaltzy sentiment hardly seems cheesy at all when it comes in the story of a man (Sam Neill) and boy (Julian Dennison) who become the subjects of a manhunt after they're accidentally stuck in the bush for six weeks.

Ricky Baker has gone from foster home to foster home, and this is the end of the line for him. But Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has created a welcoming, loving home, and gives him the space he needs to decide to stay (in between hunting pigs with the help of her dog). When she dies, Ricky doesn't want to leave, but social services won't leave him with Bella's partner Herc -- and the asocial Herc just wants to go into the bush and escape from civilization for awhile. We all know the odd couple of Ricky and Herc will love each other by the end, but how they get there is a singularly offbeat journey.

The scenery of New Zealand, of course, makes for beautiful cinematography. Taika Waititi (director and writer of the adaptation) doesn't rest on that beauty. He adds danger, both natural and human, and plenty of fun. He has a way with crafting narratives that are funny even if you aren't laughing out loud every other moment. (Not that there aren't parts that will crack you up.) There's just an ineffable comic sensibility.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn't afraid to be sad or to touch on the serious issues faced by kids in the foster system. It gets dark. That only makes the light more exuberant. It's hard, like Ricky finds, not to get caught up in the rush.

July 27, 2016

Review: The Ninja's Daughter

The Ninja's Daughter The fourth Hiro Hattori mystery
By Susan Spann
Available August 2nd from Seventh Street Books (Prometheus Books)
Review copy

I have not read the previous Hiro Hattori mysteries, but it was easy to catch up on the basics. Hiro is a ninja in disguise as a ronin, following mysterious orders to protect a Portuguese priest. Said priest, Father Mateo, keeps getting him involved in solving crimes when he'd rather focus on protecting his charge.

Their latest mystery hits close to home for Hiro, however. Emi was found strangled on the banks of a river by a young man she had been flirting with. The officials are uninterested in her case since she was just a daughter from an acting family. Secretly, her father is a former ninja and uncle to Hiro. He calls upon their family ties to get Hiro interested in who killed Emi.

You don't have to know much about Japanese history to enjoy THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, but it does make parts more fun. For instance, there are many nods to famous figures of sixteenth-century Japan. Mostly, the outsider of Father Mateo is used to introduce cultural concepts. One he struggles with is the fact that Emi would've been seen as more respectable as a prostitute than what she was -- an actor's daughter who liked to walk with men by the river. (The book is ambiguous about whether Emi ever actually worked as a prostitute to further her dreams.)

I found Emi a compelling murder victim, a woman out of her time and place, who wanted a career instead of a husband and children. There's a good mix of people with motive to kill her. I came to find the title a bit distasteful, since Emi deserved a title focused more on who she was than her father, especially since many people were interested in finding out who killed her for money or ambition or anything but justice for her. The ending brought me right back around to liking it, fortunately.

There's also an ongoing plot about Hiro and Father Mateo's relationship. Father Mateo reveals a secret past that I found disappointing, and I can't imagine long-time readers would find much more satisfying. But I did enjoy how clearly protecting Father Mateo is more than a job to Hiro, and the bond of mutual respect between the men. I'm curious what will happen to them in the next book, since Father Mateo had to flee the city in fear of the shogun, straight to the home of Hiro's clan.

If you like your mysteries with immersive settings and complex motives, THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER is a good choice. I'm not rushing out to read the earlier books, but I'll certainly pick them up if they cross my path.


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