Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Avatar

I have come to the point where I am craving for originality. It seems that every movie in theatres derives from a book, TV show, another movie, video game, or lately a theme park ride. All I want is something new. James Cameron heard my cry and made Avatar. It took him 17 years to perfect the technology in order to create his vision and I can only hope it doesn’t take that long to revisit this world.

His world is Pandora. It is an incredibly planet filled with luscious and colorful wildlife and unique natives. The natives include the Na’vi who are ten feet tall blue people with a few cat like features including (of course) tails. It takes several years to travel there, which I assume means you have to plan very well when requesting supplies. Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) travels there after his twin brother has died. The brother was a scientist who was working heavily on designing avatars. Instead of trying to sit down and talk to the natives, humans have created their own Na’vi bodies. With the avatar technology, humans can transfer their mind into their designated Na’vi body. Now they can infiltrate their society and learn from them. Since Jake has enough similar genetic material as his brother, he can use his brother’s avatar.

Jake was a marine who has lost his legs in combat. The government promises to pay for his spinal treatment if he convinces one of the Na’vi tribes to move locations so they can acquire all of the Unobtainum (This is a real scientific term, I promise) that lies there. Now this is where the movie wowed me. Pandora is an incredible place. Jake walks around the planet in awe of everything he sees and every gasp is justified. Every single plant and creature is a work of beauty. Everything is vibrant and fresh that I wished to pause the movie to get a further look at all of the nuances of each monstrous creature.

Many people have compared Avatar to the original Star Wars with all of its unique creations. The movie I kept thinking about was the original King Kong. I adore that movie, but this is more of what it wished to accomplish. Skull Island in Kong was just a typical island with the occasional oddity, including dinosaurs. With Pandora everything flows together in a perfect symbiotic fashion. The Na’vi can flow effortlessly through the trees and the floating mountains. Oh there’s floating mountains. And they’re awesome.

As I mentioned Cameron spent over a decade working on the technology and I’m so grateful he didn’t compromise. Everything looks real. I don’t know too much about computers so I’m willing to believe that CGI is just a bluff. It’s easier for me to fathom the idea that Cameron personally genetically created all of these wonders. How he got them in glorious 3D is a whole ‘nother question. By the way this film must be seen in 3D or you are missing too much. Preferably IMAX 3D because REAL-3D dilutes too many colors.

The story has been under criticism for being too simple or familiar. It is reminiscent of Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas at times, but that is not the point. Cameron created more stakes with this environment than those other two films combined. Oddly enough this isn’t the movie with the talking trees. It is Cameron’s powerful visuals and style that makes this a movie’s movie. It would be a good story. It would be a fine book. Instead it is a brilliant movie.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Organizing Crime: The Mystery Company's Guide to Series

Oh yeah. I have a new book out. (Aren't I the best promoter?) Just in time for this holiday season, Jim Huang and I created Organizing Crime: The Mystery Company's Guide to Crime. It's a guide to every active mystery series on the market right now. We put all of those books in the right canonical order, included a simple little description, and put little boxes next to the titles so you can check off if you read it or not. Also there's a comical introduction and 42 Top Five Lists for recommendations to new series. (Why 42? For Jim likes Douglas Adams and I like LOST.) Also there is a great original cover from Wanni Zhou.

Basically it's awesome.

But who is in this spiffy book? Well let me tell you. You can find series from Catherine Aird, Boris Akunin, Susan Wittig Albert, Madelyn Alt, Donna Andrews, Suzanne Arruda, Nancy Atherton, Sandi Ault, Deb Baker, David Baldacci, Sandra Balzo, Linda Barnes, Nevada Barr, Lorna Barrett, Stephanie Barron, Brett Battles, M.C. Beaton, Carrie A. Bebris, James R. Benn, William Bernhardt, John Billheimer, Cara Black, Michael A. Black, Miranda Bliss, Lawrence Block, Giles Blunt, Stephen Booth, Michael Bowen, Rhys Bowen, C.J. Box, Gyles Brandreth, Lilian Jackson Braun, Jan Brogan, Dan Brown, Rita Mae Brown, Ken Bruen, Don Bruns, Fiona Buckley, James Lee Burke, Jan Burke, Jim Butcher, Dana Cameron, Dorothy Cannell, JoAnna Carl, Sammi Carter, Sean Chercover, Lee Child, Laura Childs, Alys Clare, Carol Higgins Clark, Jane K. Cleland, Judy Clemens, Blaize Clement, Barbara Cleverly, Harlan Coben, Margaret Coel, Mark Coggins, Jeffrey Cohen, Curt Colbert, Reed Farrel Coleman, Kate Collins, Max Allan Collins, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, Colin Cotterill, Cleo Coyle, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie, Mary Daheim, Barbara D'Amato, Jeanne M. Dams, Shirley Damsgaard, Casey Daniels, Diane Mott Davidson, Kyra Davis, Lindsey Davis, Jeffrey Deaver, Jo Dereske, David Dickinson, Garry Disher, Brandt Dodson, Tim Dorsey, James D. Doss, Carole Nelson Douglas, Ruth Downie, Lee Driver, Phil Dunlap, Carola Dunn, John Dunning, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Kit Ehrman, Barry Eisler, Aaron Elkins, Kate Ellis, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Loren D. Estleman, Janet Evanovich, Mary Anna Evans, Terence Faherty, Monica Ferris, Jasper Fforde, Sharon Fiffer, Kate Flora, Joanne Fluke, Vince Flynn, Karin Fossum, Christopher Fowler, Earlene Fowler, Ariana Franklin, Margaret Frazer, Brian Freeman, Sara Hoskinson Frommer, David Fulmer, Leighton Gage, Roberta Gellis, Elizabeth George, Tess Gerritsen, Brent Ghelfi, Alan Gordon, Nadia Gordon, Chris Grabenstein, Sue Grafton, Caroline Graham, Kerry Greenwood, Susanna Gregory, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Gunn, Jane Haddam, J.P. Hailey, Carolyn Haines, Parnell Hall, Timothy Hillinan, Steve Hamilton, C.S. Harris, Charlaine Harris, Rosemary Harris, Cora Harrison, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Carolyn G. Hart, Ellen Hart, Betty Hechtman, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Joan Hess, David Hewson, Reginald Hill, Naomi Hirahara, Steve Hockensmith, Hazel Holt, David Housewright, Julie Hyzy, Arnaldur Indridason, Roberta Isleib, Sue Ann Jaffarian, P.D. James, J.A. Jance, Michael Jecks, Maureen Jennings, Iris Johansen, Craig Johnson, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Susan Kandel, Alex Kava, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Alice Kimberly, Jonathon King, Laurie R. King, Bernard Knight, Chris Knopf, J.A. Konrath, Michael Koryta, Harley Jane Kozak, Julie Kramer, William Kent Krueger, John J. Lamb, Vicki Lane, Victoria Laurie, Joyce & Jim Lavene, Mike Lawson, Dennis Lehand, Donna Leon, John Lescroart, Laura Levine, Paul Levine, Michael Z. Lewin, Martin Limón, Jeff Lindsay, Laura Lippman, David Liss, Jess Lourey, Peter Lovesey, Lisa Lutz, Stuart MacBride, Karen MacInerney, Michael McGarrity, Barry Maitland, Henning Mankell, Margaret Maron, Andrew Martin, Nancy Martin, Peter May, Archer Mayor, Susan McBride, Val McDermid, Pat McIntosh, Leslie Meier, John Ramsey Miller, Susan Cummins Miller, Walter Mosley, Marcia Muller, Shirley Rousseau Murphy, Beverle Graves Myers, Tamar Myers, Barbara Nadel, Sharan Newman, Carol O'Connell, Katherine Hall Page, Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker, P.J. Parrish, James Patterson, Eliot Pattison, Louise Penny, Tony Perona, Thomas Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Twist Phelan, Nancy Pickard, Cathy Pickens, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bill Pronzini, Ann Purser, Ian Rankin, Deanna Raymourn, Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, Matt Beynon Rees, Kathy Reichs, Ruth Rendell, Emilie Richards, Candance Robb, J.D. Robb, Natalie M. Roberts, Peter Robinson, David Rosenfelt, Rosemary Rowe, Laura Joh Rowland, Priscilla Royal, S.J. Rozan, Greg Rucka, Hank Phillippi Ryan, John Sandford, C.J. Sansom, Ian Sansom, Jonathan Santlofer, Mary Saums, Steven Saylor, Tom Schreck, Mark Schweizer, Kate Sedley, Maggie Sefton, John Shannon, Zoe Sharp, Sharon Short, Daniel Silva, Joanna Campbell Slan, Karin Slaughter, Alexander McCall Smith, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Peter Spiegelman, Patricia Sprinkle, Dana Stabenow, J.B. Stanley, John Straley, Denise Swanson, Pari Noskin Taichert, Marcia Talley, William G. Tapply, Sarah Stewart Taylor, Terri Thayer, Will Thomas, Victoria Thompson, Aimée & David Thurlo, Ronald Tierney, Charles Todd, S.D. Tooley, P.J. Tracy, Peter Tremayne, Elaine Viets, Kathryn R. Wall, Heather Webber, Randy Wayne White, Robert Wilson, Jacqueline Winspear, David Wishart, Stuart Woods, Edward Wright, Sally Wright, Qiu Xiaolong, and Mark Richard Zubro.

You can buy this book in a bunch of locations. Sure you can go the predicatable route of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any place like that. OR you could be super cool and buy it at www.themysterycompany.com (I'd vote for the latter, but I'm bias.)

Film Snob Episode #7 - New Moon Screening

I apologize, I actually forgot to post this a few weeks ago when it went live. Never-the-less, Film Snob is back! There have been some delays, but her'es the latest episode wehre I continue my mockery of the innocent. This time the innocents are the ones attending the midnight screening of New Moon. Like Episode #2, none of this is script aside from the introduction. Major thanks to Kenny Jones and Keith Jackson for their help in this.

If you enjoyed that, there are six more episodes of me being snobby on my YouTube page. We are currently planning on four more episodes next semester. Get excited...

Ticket Stubs: Invictus

In today’s cynical society “inspiration” has become a curse word. Too many movies try so desperately to lay on the schmaltz, that the viewer becomes annoyed instead of inspired. So how do you do it right? That is the premise at the heart of Invictus. During the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid. Needless to say, the country was very divided. In an unconventional technique, Mandela turned to the country’s rugby team.

Casting Morgan Freeman as Mandela may be the most obvious casting in the history of time, but that is primarily because brilliance seemed guaranteed. That assumption turned out to be more than accurate. One of the major reasons why the inspiration is successful is because Mandela is perceived as a human being, not a saint. His actions towards rugby are always in question by his confidants and there are constant glimpses at his imperfect personal life, which includes his poor physical health and depressing family situation. Pure inspiration comes from those who are relatable and genuine. When Mandela gives a speech in Invictus, it is powerful because Freeman shows how much Mandela wants and needs these things to happen.

In order to create unity, Mandela befriends Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African Springbok rugby team. They look to each other for ways to lead their people and in turn they inspire themselves to become greater leaders and men. Matt Damon plays Pienaar and once again gives a fantastically subtle and heartfelt performance. I doubt it will receive its proper praise, but Damon constantly turns in these excellent feats that should label him as one of our greatest actors working today. (Freeman you would be up there, but you did take part in Wanted. Yikes.)

Now I feel I should devote a paragraph to the third man associated with this film: Mr. Clint Eastwood. Now people often associate him as the epitome of the gender and a solid actor, but I think his real skills have been shown this decade as a director. He’s been directing forgettable spaghetti westerns since the seventies, but lately he crafted such great movies such as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima. With Invictus, he shows his patience by taking the time to subtly generate necessary tension. Also his powerful use of the camera is in full display during the rugby scenes. No, I don’t fully understand the game of rugby, but Eastwood creates an environment that is exciting and terrifying. There is no need to explain the minute rules because in every frame the stakes and motivations are clearly defined.

These scenes and the rest of the movie completely work because this movie achieves its goal. Yes, I admit it! I was inspired. I haven’t seen a movie that completely earns moments of triumph since last year’s Slumdog Millionaire. Nothing is hokey or corny, only powerful.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ticket Stubs: An Education

Dear Carey Mulligan,

How do you act so well? I hope you don’t see this as an insult in anyway, but I’m shocked by your performances in your career thus far. As you can probably guess, I’ve just recently seen An Education. I’ve also seen you as the star of my favorite Doctor Who episode “Blink.” You’re something else.

When you look at these shows, it’s clear the producers understand how good you are. Unless I’m forgetting something, you’re in every scene of those two productions. That’s really impressive especially when you have more screen time than the title character of a TV show. They know what they are doing because you have proven without a doubt that you worthy to act with Peter Sarsgaard, David Tennant and Emma Thompson as a true peer.

This praise, as hyperbolic as it may seem, is accurate. It’s not because of how young you are and what a feat that is. I mean, I’m younger than you (Not by too much! I’m just throwing that out there…) Let’s just examine your work in An Education. You have to play many different evolutions of the character of Jenny. I still can’t pinpoint how you do it, but it seems effortless as you transition from her being a naive girl to a wiser woman. Your character meets a slightly older man, David, almost on a whim. He is charming and romantic and your character’s feet are swept up. Beloved author Nick Hornby properly crafted David in a way that truly benefited you. If David was a phony during these interactions, then it would be difficult to respect Jenny. With this you are able to play with the naturalistic ways Jenny is curious and enamored with this new London David opens to her.

There you are able to use your remarkable screen presence. The way you show the character at any given moment added so much to this already fine film. In fact it became a debate between my brother and I after the screening to figure out how old you are. The beginning of the film we are convinced you were 15 playing 16. By the end we figured you were 20 playing 17. In Doctor Who we figured you were in your upper 20s. This isn’t a makeup trick, but a perfection of character comprehension. At the right times you are able to be confident, insecure, crushed, overjoyed, or disappointed. These aren’t stock emotions, but tailored personally to your established character.

The acting nominations are already trickling in for your performance this year. Get used to it, missy. There will be many more this year and many more for years to come. The phrase “rising star” not only applies to you, but also could have been invented for you. Now don’t slip up. Don’t let these nominations and schmaltzy letters like this one go to your head. I think you have the potential to be one of the finest actors of our generation. You even have me wanting to see Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps now. (Though see if you can work on a title change. Is Return to Wall Street too conventional for them?) So I’ll be watching and you’ll get another letter if you stop trying. Yet, I doubt that’s going to happen.


Austin Lugar


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Precious

After talking to a various number of people, I have concluded that Precious has become one of the most intimidating films of the year. A few years ago I think more people would have embraced the story of an overweight black girl who is pregnant for the second time by her own father. Back in 2007, three of the most popular films by critics and audiences were No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Atonement. That’s right, the stories about an unstoppable killer, an obsessive hateful oil tycoon, and a World War II love tragedy were amongst the most beloved. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s the war, maybe it’s Jon and Kate and their infamous 8, but it seems that escapism is on the rise.

But allow me to be blunt: you should see this movie. Precious introduces a unique character and a world where it’s impossible to determine how it will ultimately treat her. Precious is not doing well in school, but at least it is a break from her life at home. Her mother verbally and occasionally physically abuses her. The principal of the public school gives Precious the opportunity to attend a special school to help students get their GED.

Instead of isolating Precious, this school gives her the chance to relate more to people of her own age and to the understanding teacher. Aside from the good fortune of her principal, this new life is not just handed to her. She could have easily decided to not open up to her teacher or made the effort to learn how to read and write. Perhaps the most irritating cliché of “inspirational” movies is their insistence on showing how “strong” their characters are. (“Quotation marks” are “fun”.) There are a million instances when Precious could have given up and accepted her current position. Even when things actually get worse for her—and they do—she continues to push forward and try to have a better life.

This is a universal concept. Too many people settle or compromise instead of hoping for happiness. Jefferson was right; it is a pursuit. That is the way the director, Lee Daniels, presents Precious’s story. All you see is her brutal reality and her fantastical dreams. As escapism, we see Precious wanting to be a music video dancer or Hollywood starlet but she is smarter than that. Her real goals are tangible and that is why she is so sympathetic and relatable even to a skinny little white guy like me. There is a reason this movie has been racking up the critical and audience awards at places like Toronto and Sundance. It’s one not to miss.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Quarry in the Middle

There is cool and there is awesome. Don Draper is cool; Clint Eastwood is awesome. Frank Sinatra is cool; Sean Connery is awesome. Do you understand now? Good. Max Allan Collins’ “Quarry” is very awesome. The character has been around since the 70s in one capacity or another, but recently Hard Case Crime, one of the coolest publishers ever, has been printing original novels featuring the notorious hitman. After 2006’s The First Quarry and 2008’s The Last Quarry, it is only right to now have Quarry in the Middle. As you can imagine this takes place in the middle of the Quarry timeline.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Quarry is the alias of a very smart assassin. At this point, he is no longer working for The Broker and wants revenge. So he finds further hitmen, discovers who their targets are and offers the target his services to kill their hitman. Like I said, he’s awesome. There are plenty of worthy hitman series to read like the wonderful John Rain series by Barry Eisler. What makes this one so special? It’s because of Quarry, himself. The first person narrative is witty and fun. The plotting is fast pace and exciting, as is custom with Collins. I hope I am not spoiled by these recent additions to the series and have to wait a few decades for another adventure.

Book Review: The Rattlesnake Season

I admit it. I’m not too familiar with westerns. Aside from a few choice Elmore Leonards, I really haven’t read any. I’m sorry! I’m willing to become more educated after reading the fine novel The Rattlesnake Season by Larry D. Sweazy. This is the type of book that further proves that genre literature ought to be respected more. Just like “literary” fiction, the best genre fiction tends to have its focus on its characters. Season is no exception as it introduces Josiah Wolfe, a resurrected Texas Ranger in the 1870s.

In its haunting prologue, Wolfe loses his wife during the birth of his son. Years pass and the son is older. In order to provide for his smaller family, he rejoins the Rangers. His first assignment is to bring the criminal Charlie Langdon back to Austin (That’s my name!) to be hung. The task is anything but simple and that is one of the reasons this is such a compelling read. There’s a real sense of place and time that never feels over-explained, which tends to happen in lesser historical novels. It’s a very strong debut and I can’t wait to see more in the series.

Ticket Stubs: Bright Star

While watching the wonderful Bright Star, I discovered I relate more to 19th century poets than the coffeeshop generation of writers of today. I have no intention of trading my MacBook for an ink pen or wearing outfits that would be perceived as “stylish.” It was all about the way John Keats and Mr. Brown saw their roles as poets. Practicality be damned there was no other profession that they could be. They comprehend that there is very little money coming their way, but it is as if they accept their destiny for better or worse. This to me is truly honorable and speaks more of being a writer than any other film in quite some time.

Now we all recognize the name of John Keats or at least we should... Philistines. Keats is considered one of the great romantic poets. Just like the celebrities of today, I was not familiar with Keats’s personal life. To me, Fanny Brawne sounded vaguely like an answer to a Jeopardy question. That may also be true, but she is more known as the muse for Keats. Bright Star tells the tale of their pure romance.

It is difficult to properly classify this movie. It is a biopic but it isn’t just like it’s a period piece but isn’t. Pardon my contradiction, but this movie felt like a wonderful breath of fresh air. This movie reminded us that a genre movie does not have to fall into the same tired beats. The film begins immediately into the story, never talking down to the audience to explain the time and the characters. As much as the trailer wishes you to believe, this doesn’t fall into the typical period piece clichés where it is about character fighting against class systems. There are those elements and they are an obstacle, but no one is monologuing about them. The characters understand their situation so there is no need to whine endlessly about it.

This is what I really love about this movie. The whole piece just feels so delicate. There is not a wasted word or scene on screen. Like the poems of Keats, everything feels so wonderfully actualized. This is the work of a skilled artist. Jane Campion is a director I’ve always admired, but never anticipated her new entries. Bright Star changed that. It wasn’t just her screenplay, but the way every frame felt organic and realized. Also there is a real sense that she is an actor’s director. She is working with accomplished characters actors like Ben Wishaw (Perfume) and they all are able to capture nuances needed for the characters. Especially Paul Schneider. Good golly Miss Molly; why aren’t more people giving him the proper credit as one of the best actors working right now? He’s remarkable in this just like he was in All the Real Girls, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and Lars and the Real Girl. Eventually he’ll receive an Oscar nomination. He deserves it for his role as Mr. Brown, Keats’s best friend and lesser poet. I always thought that talking about potential Oscar bids was the best way to date a review, but in this case I’m just hoping for that.

Ultimately, Bright Star is as intelligent and sweet as the subjects themselves. This movie is not limited towards the female gender. In fact John Keats proves that real men know romance. It’s not shameful to take notes. At least I hope not.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ticket Stubs: The Box

If I write this review, two things will happen. One: someone somewhere in the world who I probably know will roll their eyes at this introduction. Two: I will receive one million dollars courtesy of MovieSet.com. Now this could all be a bluff, an empty box if you will. Nothing may happen, but there’s still that thought in the back of your head that it could. It seems like a short puzzle, but curiosity will still remain after a decision is made. Is this really the end of the line? What poor souls have to have to be the ones to roll their eyes? Who is making this offer? Surely not MovieSet; I’m sure they doubt my employment with every review I turn in.

For the one of you who is confused, I’m talking about Richard Kelly’s latest mind-melter, The Box. In this film, the stakes are slightly raised with having a random person die instead of having to endure the uncomfortableness of suffering through a mediocre joke. However, the questions remain the same. The moral puzzle can only last so long, but Kelly creates a fun atmosphere by using those remaining questions to create this crazy-awesome sci-fi tale. Viewers of Donnie Darko know that Kelly is not interested in conventional tales. They also know he’s into water movement and this movie has both of those quirks.

In the same vein as a show like LOST, The Box toys with its supernatural quandaries in an addicting fashion. Not all of the solutions are extremely satisfying, but the film surprised me how often it made me reexamine the ethics of the initial premise. It’s not often you see such an interesting examination of altruism in today’s society, even if the film is set in the 1970s. Especially an examination that involves…nope, I’m not going to spoil it.

The film is not perfect, but if you embrace the madness of the plot it’s worth your time. Everyone involves seems to be entirely with it. James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, and Frank Langella all admirably ground the movie with their believable performances of the characters’ struggles. Yes even Diaz, who I sincerely believe can not read, delivers a performance that is not distracting and—dare I say!—competent. Not since Being John Malkovich have I been able to look at her and say “That wasn’t bad.” So clearly she needs to stick with movies where she cannot comprehend the plot.

Proper writing structure suggests that I return to the gimmick in the first paragraph as a bookend, but that premise was questioning whether or not I write a review. I wrote it. Clearly, this is the final paragraph. So instead of professionally concluding a review, I’ll just provide this link to a brilliant parody of The Box. Enjoy: http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/44b3d8f432/the-button


Friday, November 6, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Antichrist

In all regards, you should not watch Antichrist. My position as a reviewer is to guide you into seeing or not seeing a film by providing my own opinions. Throughout this review, I shall remark a lot of the achievements of this film, but I warn you this is not a recommendation.

So why shouldn’t you see a film that I will label as technically good? When you look as Lars Von Trier’s canon, there are a variety of films designed to make you feel uneasy. His greatest films in my mind (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) are films that I have no interest in experiencing for a second time. Von Trier has the uncanny ability to delve in to the dark parts of the human psyche and create remarkable works of art from it. With those films, the audience also takes part in his characters’ downward spirals but it is appreciated because these characters are worth caring about and he is a very competent director. Now with Antichrist, he may have crossed the line into pure misery.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a nameless couple whose child is killed in the opening scene of the film. What follows is a demented journey of grief and pain, which is more frightening than insightful. Their destruction plays like a feature version of Un Chien Andalou equipped with images that are forever scared in my brain. Dafoe and Gainsbourg act through this expertly with unflinching and raw decisions. In fact everything about this film is done expertly. Von Trier experiments and succeeds with his lighting techniques that I’ve never seen done before. The film is shot like a work of art, but more in the vein of Hieronymus Bosch than Monet. (Yes I only know who Bosch is because I read Michael Connelly. Don’t judge me.)

Why I don’t rank Antichrist as highly as the rest of Von Trier’s work? For the art overpowers the characters and the story. Everything felt like a device to put the audience on the same level von Trier is on. I embrace film because of its unique way to tell a story. When storytelling is compromised I tend to lose respect for the filmmaker, which is what has happened to me towards Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and David Lynch. (Eat it up film nerds!). The reason people seem to be attracted towards Antichrist is its use of compromise. Much in the same vein as Salo, people comment on seeing this film as an achievement in tolerance. They made it through and were able to blog about it. However this does not compare as effective as Requiem For a Dream or even Cries and Whispers because for me the experience of Antichrist isn’t worth it.

Ticket Stubs: A Serious Man

As we wrap Halloween Movie Month at MovieSet.com, I decided to check out a scary movie. No I didn’t go out and see Saw VI, Cirque de Freak or the horrifying looking Couples Retreat. I decided to check out the latest Coen Brothers’ creation: A Serious Man. Now I’m sure all of you’re are screaming at your computer screens in protest demanding that I rightfully categorize it as a drama or even a drama-edy not a horror film. Now let’s just look at what constitutes a horror movie.

To me the effective horror movies are ones where bad things are happening to relatively good people. What’s creepier than a seemingly unstoppable larger-than-life force that is out to get you? In the case of A Serious Man, that force is God or just terrible luck. Much like the biblical Job, Larry Gopnik is having everything that could go wrong occur in a very short amount of time. On every front he is hit: from a marital, financial, professional and religious standpoint. This predicament is scarier than any Michael Myers or Vince Vaughn for this is something completely intangible.

Throughout all of this, Larry keeps insisting to anyone who would listen that he hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet he hasn’t really done anything great as well. Is doing nothing wrong, something wrong? This is one of many paradoxes examined in the film. No easy solutions are given no matter how desperately the characters want them. Larry and his family are devout members of the Jewish community during the 1960s so everyone around him keeps telling him to turn to the rabbis for advice. However all he receives are empty parables and a prescription to continue to have faith in God.

From that description, I seem to be accidently inferring that the Coens are saying that religion is unsatisfying. I do not believe that for the simple reason of I don’t know yet. This is my first review for this site where I am not 100% certain on my interpretations of the directors’ intentions. I apologize for having only seen this film once. This is not an act of mental laziness on my part because so much of the film is up to interpretation. Interpretations that I feel will change as time goes by for me, much like theories about real life.

Do not take my indecisions as a strike against the film (or hopefully not me). A Serious Man is a film I call “intellectually arousing.” I never want a film to be disposable. You can determine a film’s impact by how long you think about it afterwards. This is a film that academically satisfies its viewers, but on a surface level it is flawlessly entertaining. This is the genius of the Coen Brothers. Thanks the Roger Deakins the shots are always astounding and the actors, especially Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry, know how to sell the comedy and tragedy of the situation. This is exactly the kind of film I latch onto and adore. So check it out as, at the very least, an unconventional Halloween viewing.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Top Ten Horror Movies of the Decade

According to my spiffy Hotel For Dogs calendar, this year is almost over. Now it would be the professional thing to wait the final months until unveiling this list, but I say nay! October is the time for horror so I apologize if the scariest movie comes out in these remaining weeks, but here are my Top Ten Horror Films of the Decade

#10 – Caché

This is more of an unconventional choice and that’s why I decided to place it so low. It’s not really a horror film, but it’s an unsettling movie with a few powerful scares. Georges is a talk show host who keeps receiving videotapes on his doorstep. The tapes show surveillance of him and his family. The director, Michael Haneke, is not interested in giving you a lot of answers, but he does keep you on edge for the duration of the film.

#9 – Saw

Remember when there was only one? Saw broken into the horror scene and shook it up. Now a couple torture-porn movies come out a year, but Saw was unique. Yes, the themes in the movie are rather stupid and the acting is all over the place (Not in the good directions), but this is still a fun, gruesome ride. Also Michael Emerson is in it so you know it’s worth the #9 spot on that alone.

#8 – The Ring

Once again, just ignore the sequel. Saw started the torture-porn movement and The Ring gave us a million Japanese remakes. So why in the world would I be rewarding these? Despite all the havoc they inadvertently gave to the multiplex, the initial entries were still great. Naomi Watts and Gore Verbinski bring a lot of credibility to what could have been just another horror movie. The conclusion to the madness isn’t very satisfying, but we’re still left with a large handful of really creepy images and a very cheap way to prank your friends. “Seven days.”

#7 – Signs

Yes! I like Signs! A lot! I’m not sure when the backlash began for Signs, but it hasn’t stopped for many years. In reality, this is M. Night Shyamalan’s best and most mature movie. The suspense is top-notched and earned. Its messages about religion and faith are handled well especially when you have Mel Gibson performing the monologues. Yes! I like Mel Gibson! Despite his crazy drunk bigoted ramblings, he’s still one hell of an actor. Why do I have to justify myself to you? Next movie!

#6 – The Descent

When The Descent is really good, it’s crazy good. When it’s just okay, I can’t frankly remember most of those scenes. The Descent is about a group of girls who decide to go spelunking and low and behold a lot of things go wrong. It takes longer than it should for things to go wrong, but once it does it becomes masterful. The film treats its audience with intelligence by never explaining things, but giving you enough clues to let you form your own conclusions. Also make sure you watch the original ending, not the lame American one.

#5 – Paranormal Activity

You can see my full review for Paranormal Activity on this site so I’ll just give you the shortened version. This is definitely an imperfect movie, but that won’t stop me from recommending it to people. The movie is very clever with how it uses its low budget and really shines thanks to the realistic performances by its leads. Don’t let yourself be spoiled from others about any of its scares; they’re rather cool. Yet some advice if you’re in a similar situation as this couple: Try locking the bedroom door? Couldn’t hurt.

#4 – The Orphanage

The best horror movies aren’t about how scary the monster looks, but how unnerving the sounds are when it’s coming towards you. The Orphanage is a master class for atmosphere. It’s about a woman who is reopening the orphanage where she grew up. Soon after she arrives, her son befriends someone who his mother can’t see. Lead by a tour-de-force performance by Belén Rueda, this movie will creep you out. Also I have complained about a few of the endings thus far on the list, but I guarantee you this one is fantastic.

#3 – Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Remember Scream? Remember how awesome and groundbreaking it was in deconstructing the genre? This is even better. I found this film basically by accident, but I’m thrilled that I did. Behind the Mask is a mockumentary following a man named Leslie Vernon who wants to be the next Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers. He shows the documentary crew all the steps it takes to be a successful serial killer. This almost validates all of the silly Friday the 13th and whatnot movies because it gives the illusion of all the work each of these serial killers. This movie also stars Robert England in the reverse role as the “Ahab.”

#2 – REC

Like all good foreign horror movies, this one has already been remade. Ignore Quarantine (but it looks like most of you already had) because REC is a very tight and suspenseful thriller. Like Paranormal Activity, REC is made up entirely of raw footage from a film camera. Yet this scenario is a little more plausible than most to why the characters are constantly filming everything. It is about a local TV news team who is filming a regular segment called “While You’re Sleeping.” They are following the firefighters when they get a mysterious call to an apartment complex. Once they arrive, things go nuts and everyone inside has become quarantined. It’s a shorter film, but there is not a wasted second.

#1 – Let the Right One In

I adore this movie. So much. People often forget there were TWO vampire romance movies that came out last year. This one just happened to be Swedish and involving twelve year olds. Also this one has actual vampires, not ones doused in glitter. Let the Right One is the very eerie tale of a young girl vampire who moves into town and is hungry. She isn’t a monster, but because of what she is, she has to be monstrous. The movie brings up some complex themes of dedication and existence while juxtaposing them with beautifully haunting images. See this as soon as you can before the American remake comes out next year.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Paranormal Activity

By now you’ve already heard of Paranormal Activity. Typically this is the type of smaller film that I would latch onto, talk about like crazy, and then everyone would continue to ignore it. Yet the fates of cinema worked with me this time. I don’t know how the word of mouth avalanched to the point that this $11,000 film is now available nationwide.

So here’s the big question: Is this Little Engine That Could worth the ride? In short, yes. The longer version, the rest of this review. Paranormal Activity is the story of a twenty something couple who have been experiencing some peculiar things around their house. Micah decides the best idea is to record this activity on an expensive film camera that he buys. That’s where the movie begins. The entire film, much like Cloverfield, is made up of Micah’s footage. Yet unlike Cloverfield, you can actually see where Micah plugs in the battery. Having the camera in the house only angers (or perhaps amuses) the entity that is tormenting the couple.

Now the torment is what everyone is talking about with this movie. At night Micah sets up the camera and points it towards their bed. Then during the early hours, something happens. It has often been observed that with restraint, true creativity reigns. Would certain Hitchcock films be as successful if he didn’t always try to fight against the oppressive Hays’ Code? The filmmakers behind this movie didn’t have a censorship issue, but a budget one. Too many horror films rely on special effects to heighten their scares, but this movie reminds us what is really scary is what we can’t see. Every “scary scene” is a showcase for clever filmmaking tricks. I know roughly how Peter Jackson created Gollum, but I can’t figure out how this film made….sorry, I can’t say. This film is only becoming more popular and I’m sure some of the biggest scares will be spoiled. I don’t want to be that guy.

So why do these scenes work? No one is taking pity on the film by saying that “it is scary for its budget.” It is scary in spite of its budget. The intimacy of this movie is outstanding. Having the camera so close to the action is one thing, but what really makes the film frightening is that they properly set up the environment. This movie has been unfairly compared to The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity succeeds every time Project failed. Blair Witch is boring because you can’t stand being lost in the woods with those numskulls, whereas I enjoyed my time with Micah and Katie. They feel like two very real people. They each have naturalistic flaws and they always properly respond to the madness that they are faced with. I give a lot of that credit to the real Micah and Katie. Working with amateur actors is always a risk, but their performances feel so raw that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint when they are “acting.”

Now this movie is far from perfect. The exposition is handled rather poorly, too many of the sequences during the day aren’t needed, and there is a bit of a pacing problem throughout the film. None of these put a real damper on the film because what shines through is its clever approach on a genre that is at its best when there is fresh talent like these guys.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

2009 Anthony Award Winners

As I mentioned in my last post, I was the chair of the Anthony Awards for this year's BoucherCon. The convention concluded today and I had a blast. Sure, I'm comically exhausted but I'm proud of the work I did there, especially looking at the Anthony Awards. I honestly believe that this was a really really strong list of nominations and I'm very satisfied with all of the winners. What? Oh who won? Okay, I'll tell you.

Best Novel: The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Best First Novel: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Best Paperback Original: State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy
Best Short Story: "A Sleep Not Unlike Death" by Sean Chercover
Best Critical Nonfiction: Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography by Jeffrey Marks
Best Childrens/Young Adult: The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein
Best Cover Art: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo designed by Peter Mendelsund
Special Service Award: Jon and Ruth Jordan

The award this year was designed by Bright Ideas in Broad Ripple and I think it looks beautiful. It's a crystal book with the name of the award etched onto its "cover." Then a real magnifying glass is aimed in that direction all while on a nice piece of marble. Below are two pictures without the etchings on the crystal.

Truly, I'm so happy with how all of this turned out this year and I couldn't have done it without the great volunteers I've had and the most cooperative (and enthusiastic) nominees I could ask for. Thanks everyone.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spiffy Reminders and BoucherCon

Hey everyone,

Just a reminder that two of my favorite books of the year are actually now available to buy. The Ghosts of Belfast (The Twelve) and Juliet, Naked. I highly recommend both of them and you can see more paragraphs explaining why in their respected reviews.

Also while I have your attention, BoucherCon is next week! BoucherCon is the world's largest mystery convention and this year it's in Indianapolis. I've had the fun job of being in charge of the Anthony Awards and those will be awarded next Saturday. Check back at this blog for the winners. Or follow me on Twitter to get more up-to-date information from the ceremony @AustinLugar

Also a really fun thing I'm doing will be a series of interviews for The Reel Deal at BoucherCon. So once again, check back at this blog for the YouTube links and schedules of when they will air on The Reel Deal. I don't want to jinx anything, but we have a lot of great authors confirmed for a sit-down interview to discuss their relationships with Hollywood. One MAY rhyme with Bichael Bonnelly and the other is most definitely Charlaine Harris. Also many more.... Get excited.

Ticket Stubs: The Invention of Lying

From a young age we were all taught that lying is wrong. In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson say that may not be true. Lying takes place in an alternate reality where everyone in the world speaks only the brutally honest truth, except for Gervais’s character, Mark Bellison, who has discovered the ability to lie. These conditions make reality unbearable to live in. Visually, this place does not appear to be dystopian, but it’s the way everyone treats each other. Without social boundaries, everyone expresses their envy, hate, and ambivalence to each other the second they feel it.

So why would you lie about anything at all? (First the window, then it’s through the wall!) The film suggests several options about why people lie and when they should. Initially Mark believes he can shape the world to be exactly how he wants it. He was recently fired from being a screenwriter at a major film production company. Since there is no such thing as fiction, there are only history lessons shown in theatres. Reenacting (or any acting really) is a form of lying, so all the stories are presented by a professional reader sitting on an armchair facing the camera. Mark was assigned the 1300s, which features the cinematically uninteresting Black Death. He becomes a superstar when he “discovers” a lost historical document from that century involving aliens and nude Amazonian women.

As the plot continues, Mark struggles with sincerity and how to find the right balance to live. This moves the movie into a controversial direction. I apologize for possibly speaking down to you lovely readers, but let me bluntly state this: You do not have to spiritually agree with a film in order to respect and enjoy it. No one (hopefully) wanted Tevye to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior in Fiddler on the Roof and the same applies to this movie.Gervais addresses the issue of fame and power in the excellent BBC series Extras and briefly in The Office. It’s a subject he’s obviously fascinated by. These examinations arrive at a similar thesis: fame is shallow and unsatisfying. So what can one do to lie and be satisfied? Mark becomes fulfilled when he is using his superpower to help his fellow man. Jonah Hill plays a fellow tenant in Mark’s building who is suicidal. Every time the two of them pass by, Hill says he will try a new way to end his life. He is miserable until Mark gives him hope that was never conceivable before.

I’ve talked a lot about this movie so far but I really haven’t brought up its genre. This is a comedy. Not only that, it’s a really funny one. The movie is jam-packed with some of the funniest actors working today including Tina Fey, John Hodgman, Louis C.K. and many more I’d rather not spoil. (Listen carefully to the voice of the police officer.) The premise provides a lot of unexpected and clever one-liners. One actress who I honestly didn’t think could pull them off was Jennifer Gardner. In Alias, I believed she could kick my butt, but I didn’t think she could make me laugh. She is given the difficult task of playing a character that is intensely shallow and judgmental, but she must also subtly show why Mark Bellison is so smitten with her. For a character that doesn’t have a lot of depth on the page, Gardner did an amazing job.

To me comedy is all about giving the audience something they aren’t expecting. If someone sees a joke coming, then they won’t laugh. (This can be debated since I’ve now seen several crowds crack up during the trailer for Old Dogs.) My favorite comedies are the ones that make me laugh throughout, but also have messages that I hadn’t considered before. This is the reason why I consider Ricky Gervais to be the best comedian working today.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ticket Stubs: The September Issue

Fashion is an enigma to me, as evidenced by my typical attire. In the latest documentary, The September Issue, one person describes the industry as the act of playing pretend. If this is true, the conductor of everyone’s imagination would be Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. Her power in fashion is seen and talked about extensively, but I have the feeling that we have only seen a sliver of her power in these 90 minutes. The film quickly establishes that she is a force that is respected and feared.

For the film follows Vogue as it is preparing for the 2007 September issue. As everyone knows—When I say everyone I mean, those who are interested in fashion—the September issue of Vogue is powerful. It’s their biggest issue and can quickly establish upcoming trends in fashion. Where would we be without the fur revival in the 90s? Let’s not even think of it. In 2007, Wintour was planning the largest issue yet: over 800 pages.

From a journalistic point of view, this act is ambitious but surprisingly maintained. There are levels of disagreement from within the Vogue office, but there are no typical scenes of conflict. Wintour is the ultimate trump card. Throughout the film a creative director, Grace Coddington, constantly disagrees with Wintour’s decisions, but is always shut down within milliseconds. In fact, Coddington is the only one who will openly talk against Wintour. Everyone else praises her or, wisely, keeps mum.

Wintour is a powerhouse and is undeniably the top of the food chain. The fascinating aspect of her perceived persona was that I wasn’t convinced she was a huge fan of fashion. I saw her more interested in power and fashion was just the career she used. If she wanted to be the queen of the book business, I believe she could have maintained it. She alludes to the fact that her family doesn’t respect her career path, but because Wintour is so internal we are uncertain if she cares.

One can unfairly assume that Wintour is simply mean with some of the things she says, like saying the documentary’s cameraman needs to go to the gym. That is more characteristic of her alter ego, Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. That would be premature for, from what I’ve seen, it looks like she is more apathetic than purposefully cruel. Some can actually see that as worse, but I find it more respectful.

Speaking of respect—How ‘bout that segue-way!—I was surprised to find myself not being judgmental against the fashion industry. Everyone treats each picture and outfit with such intricate care, just as I would towards a film shot or paragraph. One thing I found really interesting was the terminology they used. The adjective they used the most often to simply describe an outfit was “pretty.” All of Vogue’s fashion was aimed towards women and I liked how that word was used instead of “hot” or “attractive.” For these outfits aren’t used as mating signals. To wear the clothes featured in Vogue is for the intent of pleasing yourself or impressing your fashion peers.

This was one of the many revelations I had that made this film so interesting to a fashion “noob.” I would now like to learn more about this field, but that doesn’t mean I want to DVR America’s Next Top Model (Tyra Banks scares me). For I almost felt pity towards the models. Almost none of them had any speaking lines in The September Issue because in this stage of fashion, they are simply accessible mannequins. Props for the artists. I am not being factious when using the word “artists” because what they are crafting takes an insane amount of creativity and intellect. I want to learn more about them or at the very least, revisit this well-made film.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Jennifer's Body

Why is Jason X such a likable movie? Good? Debatable. Likable? Absolutely. For reasons unknown and unneeded, people of the future decide to freeze the comically brutal serial killer Jason Voorhees and then awaken his corpse in the 25th century IN SPACE! Yes! As every individual with two brain cells can deduce, Jason still wants to murder everyone in sight. Unfortunately the highly trained scientist-astronauts only have one brain cell to share among themselves. Seriously, rent it. It’s awesome.

Now let’s look at Jennifer’s Body. Jennifer is a hot popular girl (Megan Fox) who gets possessed by a demon and decides to eat and kill her fellow classmates. In many ways high school is just as silly of a place as space, thus I was drawn to this premise. Throughout the film, it pulls off the proper level of fun. Characters who we aren’t invested in get eaten in a silly, sexy manner. A character has a hook for a hand for no particular reason. Students are setting up posters for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: The Musical!. Yes! But…this is only one piece of the movie.

The other spices in this bizarre recipe are what give this movie such a bitter aftertaste. The harshest tasting ingredient is easily Diablo Cody’s cringe-worthy dialogue. In Juno the amped up witticisms were appropriate because Juno was using these phrases as part of defense mechanism to hide her insecurities. In Body everyone talks like this! They aren’t even fun phrases. Every use of “you’re so Jello” or “cheese ‘n fries” pulls the audience out of the film so powerfully that it feels like we’re attached to surprise zip-line wires.

Also there’s a problem with the pacing of the movie. Jason X has a body count. Jennifer’s Body has you count the bodies on one hand. Now this doesn’t have to be a problem, but the large spaces between the killings are usually quite dull. Sure, Amanda Seyfried saves most of the scenes she’s in by adding a surprising amount of depth to her character. Yet it almost feels at times this movie wants us to take it somewhat seriously. Why? Why in the world would we do that? Jennifer isn’t a likable character in the slightest.

We don’t want to hear her talk or explain herself. In fact the worst scene in the whole movie is this long unneeded exposition scene with almost no new information. Also I’m not even going to bother with a transition for this comment: For a teenager so hip and “in”, why does Seyfried go to the library for demon slaying research? Google escaped her pop culture lexicon?

In short, Jennifer’s Body is no Scream. It’s also no Heathers or Carrie either. And it’s certainly no Jason X.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Ticket Stubs: 9

In many ways 9 is all about potential and living up to it. Its characters and its filmmaker, Scott Acker, each want to accomplish something personal to them. As an observer to their quest, I can’t help but conclude that they all failed. Yes, the film is stunning in many regards. All who have seen the trailer can comment on its unique visual setting and intriguing cinematography. I hate using clichés, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a perfect example for “style over substance.”

With the right advisor, this movie could have used those components to create a masterful and memorable tale. Instead the movie slowly unveils a mythology that begins as compelling and quickly evolves into something that is insultingly dumb.

9 begins with the birth of number 9, voiced by Elijah Wood. 9 is a robotic sock puppet that was created with special care. His name comes from the numeral painted on his back. He awakens in a house full of potential inquires. Instinctively, 9 instantly goes to the window and finds the entire world in dystopian despair. As he explores he eventually meets up with 1 through 8, who each have their own distinct personality traits. Some of the miniature robots are afraid of this world, while others don’t want to live in fear.

Soon a robotic antagonist emerges, who—get this!—has a giant red “eye” in its center. I have never ever ever seen that in futuristic sci-fi film before. Ever. However, this one rips out souls. Okay, that’s new and rather disturbing. This entrance of this enemy begins the steep descending spiral where plot holes multiply like rabbits and the structure of the film feels like a boring video game. (Go to Level 2 to collect the ______!)

The role of the creator in this movie was, at one point, the greatest thing about this movie. The scientist who created this set of robots is barely on screen, but I kept thinking about him and his intentions. In a world this dark, why would you create life? Were their souls manufactured or immaculate? Is the movie suggesting biblical parallels? If so, with man in a God role, are they implying that God is flawed or is this simply the evolution? The movie could have easily left the audience with these questions, but instead decided to answer all of them in a rather ridiculous way. The party I was with unintentionally laughed and was left in awe of where it concluded.

I’m criticizing this movie quite a bit and I only feel one ping of regret about this. For I don’t know what is worse: a movie not being ambitious at all or a movie trying to be ambitious and then failing. It is very easy to respect one of them, but I have to think about where the audience is a week later. The former will quickly become forgettable, but the promise of the latter can be haunting to those who love movies. So I suppose the next question is do I wish that 9 was less ambitious or more competent?


Thursday, September 3, 2009

EARLY Review: Juliet, Naked

“Naked” is a powerful word. I have read three different books with that word in the title and each time I received a reaction from people around me. “You’re reading The Naked Typist? Pervert.” (Why am I called the pervert and not Parnell Hall?) “Haha! Austin’s reading Naked! Get it? Get it?” (Yes. I get it.) Now with this book it’s a whole dialog:

Dude: What are you reading?

Austin: Juliet, Naked.

Dude: Yeah, you are!

Of course in this sense of the word, “naked” refers to the musical definition. Yet in the context of the book, the naked element still gathers a powerful reaction. Tucker Crowe is a musician with a small cult following. He was big in the 80s, but mysteriously hasn’t released any music for over twenty years. Then out-of-the-blue an acoustic version of his most popular album Juliet is released entitled Juliet Naked. Duncan is among the cult of Crowe, yet he’s more of an obsessed fanboy. He completely gushes over the new album and immediately rushes to the Internet to spread his opinions. (Loser.) His long-term girlfriend, Annie, has been growing tired of being the second love in Duncan’s life and doesn’t see what the big deal is about the new album.

Nick Hornby has always been an author who has created a realistic feel for older twenty-somethings. He’s almost a John Hughes for an older British crowd. He returns to more of his themes seen in High Fidelity but in a fresh way. His creations of Duncan, Annie, and Tucker were so strong that I wasn’t bothered the novel wasn’t too heavy on plot. I was satisfied in all of their actions and reactions, especially the book’s finale. I don’t want to say this is a return to form for Hornby because I don’t think he ever went astray. Let’s just say this: Not since his early work, have I enjoyed one of his novels so much.

Juliet, Naked comes out on September 29th.

Book Review: The Accidental Billionaires

No one quite understood it, but the eruption of popularity of Facebook is something that can’t be denied. It seemed to be the right thing at the right time, but most importantly for the right people. It has since evolved beyond just a networking site for college students into one of the most popular websites on the Internet. But where did it begin?

The simple answer is Harvard. The complicated answer is The Accidental Billionaires. Unfortunately it’s not complicated enough. Billionaires tells the remarkable story of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, a shy computer genius. After creating an accidentally popular Harvard version of a “Hot or Not” site, he begins work on thefacebook.com. As the subtitle suggests, there is a lot of betrayal on the rise to the top. Yet I felt I wasn’t getting the full story. I never really understood Zuckerberg at times and that could partially be because he refused to be interviewed for the book.

Too often the book just feels overwritten as Mezrich attempts to create a scene, which distracts from the core storyline. Although before it was on bookshelves, Billionaires was on the fast track into being made into a movie. David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac) is going to direct an Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War) screenplay. Hopefully they provide the proper reworking to this book, because at its heart it really is one hell of a story.

This review is “for” Larry D. Sweazy. Check out his first novel, The Rattlesnake Season, on October 6th.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Departures

Like most film nerds, I watched the Oscars with a lot of anticipation and predictions. So when the Best Foreign Film category came along, I was hoping The Class was going to beat out Waltz With Bashir because, as I mentioned, I’m a nerd. Yet Departures went home with the golden statue, which left all of America saying, “What in the world is Departures?” It only played at the Hawaii Film Festival in 2008, which qualified it for the Oscars and is only now starting to trickle to theatres across the country.

So now that I’ve seen it, I can safely say: Yes, it deserves the prize. There are a lot of movies about death, but there aren’t many movies that show it in a beautiful light. Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cello player whose orchestra was dismantled so he has to find a new job. He misinterprets an advertisement in the paper and assumes that “departures” refers to a travel agency. It turns out the job is asking for someone to help prepare the dead for their casket. The job is not the most respected in Japanese society, but the pay is incredible so Daigo takes it. However he keeps it a secret from his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue).

Something that I found intriguing was how this process is really an art. The opening scene jumps forward in time when Daigo has been with the job for a while and you see him treat this with the same care and passion as he did with the cello. With this act, the family watches as he prepares the body into their final attire and applies makeup. An act like this could easily be portrayed as tragic but as I alluded to earlier, it’s beautiful. The entire movie is rich with bright blues and greens. The classical music throughout is powerful, but never dark.

It’s a remarkable perspective the movie maintains and is only heightened by the performances. Motoki occasionally trails into cartoonish expressions, but for the most part the nuances he gives in facial expressions is pitch-perfect. Also Hirosue! Seriously, if you don’t fall in love with this performance I’m worried that your heart may be too cold to beat. They could have easily made her a one-note character with her optimism, but she is often confronted with conflict and the way Hirosue handles these situations is just wonderful.

So unlike the tales of Ingmar Bergman or even the second half of What Dreams May Come, this movie shall not leave you with a fear of your own mortality, but a feeling of acceptance and understanding. So definitely search for this one.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki is truly a director unlike any other. His ability to create his own unique magical world is a feat worth remarking on. Ponyo is his tenth feature film and it is now one of my favorite along with My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

For in his latest cinematic beauty, he throws the audience in right away with practically no introduction to the magical surroundings. Much like WALL-E, Miyazaki has a long wondrous stretch of story without any traditional dialog. It opens with a wizard fish man (Voiced by Liam Neeson) and a large school of goldfish, the largest fish being Ponyo. Ponyo breaks away from her father/wizard and ends up close to the shore where she meets a young human named Sosuke (Voiced by Frankie Jonas, the real fourth Jonas Brothers. Sorry, eight-year-olds I’ve lied to. It’s not me.) Ponyo ends up falling in love with Sosuke and she decides she wants to be human.

Yes you read me right. A goldfish wants to become human. In all honesty, this premise shouldn’t work. It’s rather ridiculous but Miyazaki never flinches. He never inserts any cynicism or doubt even with its central characters. Sosuke lives with his mom (Voiced by Tina Fey) and she is portrayed as a rational and responsible adult. When the plot becomes completely mythical, she accepts everything in a blink of the eye. For the plot of the movie is not the most important thing. In the same vein as abstract art, Ponyo excels because of the emotions it makes you feel. Throughout the whole movie I felt a powerful sense of joy and wonder. During one sequence, Ponyo is running atop gigantic fish amidst a thunderstorm. The hand-drawn animation is refreshing and pure, thus capturing the essence of the movie.

So there are places to nitpick. Most of them trying to figure out how the wizard dude is Ponyo’s father or there is a slightly underwhelming moment in the third act or how the song over the final credits is pretty much unbearable. but the film basically becomes critic-proof as those elements are irreverent to the inevitable pleasure you’ll receive from this film. I’m convinced that no one can achieve the sense of wonder Miyazaki accomplishes with each endeavor and that is why he is easily one of the greatest working filmmakers today.

CliffNotes Version of This Review: Miyazaki is super awesome.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Stieg Larsson really captivated the whole world with his first novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It wasn’t because Larsson had sadly died and people were curious. It was because the book really was fantastic. So good, in fact, it was nominated for three Anthony Awards. (Yes I shall plug those whenever I can. Even if the context doesn’t call for it.)

So this book had a lot of pressure on it. This is the second of three completed manuscripts Larsson turned in before dying and everyone was wondering if it was to live up to the first one. To sum it up, it did. In this entry we really dive deeper into who Salander really is. In Dragon Tattoo, Salander was a computer genius and a very anti-social woman. She teamed up with journalist named Mikael Blomkvist to solve an old crime. Now she is the major suspect in two murders at Blomkvist’s newspaper. Blomkvist is the only one who believes she’s innocent and what follows is a search for her and the truth.

The writing in this book is so articulate and powerful that it’s impossible to tell that this was translated from Swedish. Although the book could probably be trimmed a little bit, I’m such a fan of the writing I didn’t really mind. What really excels in this entry is the character study of Salander. So much so that the actual mystery pales in comparison. It didn’t seem to have the powerful themes the last book gave, but this was still a very excellent entry. I’m anticipating the final entry but it’s going to be depressing to read because I could read about these characters for many more years.

Book Review: Missing Mark

Julie Kramer was one of the fresh new authors that emerged last year. I wasn’t alone in thinking this for her first novel, Stalking Susan, was nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and (most importantly?) the Anthony. Kramer continues her new series with Missing Mark.

The series follows Riley Spartz, a TV reporter located in Minneapolis. It’s sweeps time again and Spartz is looking for a big story. She thinks she finds something interesting when she finds an ad in the paper saying “Wedding Dress For Sale: Never Worn.” It turns out the husband-to-be, Mark, vanished before the wedding and hasn’t been seen since. One would even suggest he went…missing! Spartz wants to follow up on the story for she believes that Mark didn’t just get cold feet. Yet her producers think a search for a missing fish would get higher ratings.

Once again, Kramer creates a very fun world that gives you intelligent insight into the television news world with clever twisting plots. I already see this series becoming very popular.