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.