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.

July 25, 2016

Movie Monday: NERVE

NERVE is a new teen technological thriller opening this Wednesday, July 27th. Thanks to the ever trusty Alamo Drafthouse, I was able to attend an early showing. I mostly wanted to see it since Dave Franco plays the male lead, _ian_.  (Who I shall now call Ian instead of stylizing it like the screenname it is.)

Nerve I didn't know this, but NERVE is actually based on a book by Jeanne Ryan. I haven't read it, but I might pick it up because screenwriter Jessica Sharzer obviously had good material to work with. The technology is more reasonable than many similar thrillers -- phrases like 'open source,' 'dark web,' and more are actually used in the correct manner.

NERVE is a game. You can play for free or pay to watch. Players win by completing dares from the watchers in the time given and move up the ranks by gaining more watchers as they complete riskier dares for more and more money. NERVE scrapes details from players' social media profiles, so watchers can tailor dares to their fears: talking to boys, heights, and more.

I appreciated that NERVE didn't focus on bad things happening to players on-screen. This isn't about seeing a bunch of teens get maimed. It's about social pressure, how much access people can gain to your life through social media, and how making risky decisions can escalate after you overcome previous challenges. I also appreciated that the main characters, like Vee (Emma Roberts), were essentially good people who are doing their best to be ethical even if it goes against the game. I particularly liked how NERVE wove a secondary character throughout the story, building well to the reveal of his true character at a climatic moment. This is a thriller that grounds its story in character.

(Okay, I'll also mention that I loved that Vee's best friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) clearly has a crush on her, but doesn't turn against her when she starts falling for Ian even though he's clearly hurt. He keeps working to help her out, because they're friends. There are just so many good people in this story about how evil people can be when they don't have to face the consequences.)

Vee isn't the type to be a player, or so all her friends say. She can't even hit accept for the school she wants to go to, because she's afraid of her mother's reaction. (Juliette Lewis plays her mother, doing good work in a minor role.) Her brother died a few years ago, and her mother reacted by becoming smothering. But after her best friend accidentally humiliates her in public, Vee is ready to take control of her own life -- by letting complete strangers tell her what to do. Hey, she's a teenager.

NERVE is a fun little thriller with a cool look and winning characters. It wears its moral on its sleeve, but I think the earnestness works for it. Sometimes it is nice to watch a thriller with a heart instead of one that revels in nastiness. There's a place for both.


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