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.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ticket Stubs: District 9

I'm now writing movie reviews for a spiffy website called I'll repost my reviews here and on Rotten Tomatoes. This is the first one and there are more on their way. Let me know what you think and movies you would like me to review.

I already fear that writing a review for District 9 will be like writing a review for The Dark Knight. Everything that has been said has already been said and will be said again several times. If this movie isn’t going to be insanely popular, I’m officially out of touch with society. (Of course that may have already been proven with ALL OF MY FAVORITE TV SHOWS GETTING CANCELED. No, I’m not bitter.)

District 9 is the story about a big ‘ole spaceship hovering over Johannesburg and how we treated the aliens that were on board. The premise is rather ingenious. Surely the creator had to have heard the phrase “illegal aliens” one too many times on the news and thought, “What if they were actual aliens?” So after almost thirty years in this controlled society, a private company named Multi-National United (MNU) is planning the eviction of the aliens from District 9 to an even smaller slum. Yet, of course, it doesn’t go according to plan but not in the way you would think.

What I found the most impressive about this movie is that it’s masterfully constructed. There is not a wasted moment in this very concise thriller that is bold in many aspects. For what is technically a summer action movie, there are a lot of scenes of emotional and political dialog. Yet the gutsiest thing is easily the fact that all of mankind is perceived as rather vile creatures. Even our protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlot Copley), spends majority of the first act saying inhumane things with a goofy smile on his face. There are key scenes when I realized I was perfectly okay if Wikus died in some of the action scenes and then in others I sympathized with him. This is not a fault of the movie, but praise.

The movie is preachy, but it doesn’t have condescending sermons. It is very evident what the movie is trying to say about the immigration situation but by having this pseudo-documentary format it is able to be distant from its characters. This allows the audience to decide certain things about the characters. Not whether their actions are right or wrong—For it’s only wrong—but more of how wrong were they. Are some of their poor decisions excusable or even defendable?

Another way the film brings home its message is through the violence. This is a gory movie at times. Several members of my party turned away at gross images and bloody explosions. The movie handled that exactly right. If you want the violence to matter, make it horrifying. The whole film is quite the achievement and is made even greater by the fact that everyone involved are technically amateurs. This is almost everyone’s first feature length film and I know I’m not alone in wondering and anticipating what the director, Neill Blomkamp, and Copley are going to do next. For this is one hell of a debut.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home

It’s no secret that I adore the TV show The Wire, of which Pelecanos was one of the writers for. I think it’s a true masterpiece of the medium and my favorite season was the fourth when they focused on the inner city kids and how they were treated in the public school system. Many critics agreed with me, but I know I liked it because it was an issue I was more involved with than say politics or unions. That is one of the reasons I responded so well to The Way Home because Pelecanos once again focuses on teenagers.

The book opens with Chris Flynn having to go to juvenile prison. How Pelecanos handles Chris’s reactions to this situation and his fathers are so compelling that I was practically hypnotized by them. I am always critical about modern portrays of teenagers, but Pelecanos succeeds here for he captures the conceived invincibility and egos. For I should know: I’m obviously invincible. Yes, the book eventually uses a plot device that is a bit tired but the strength of the writing and the characters surpassed that and made this one of the most memorable books of the year so far.

Book Review: Cherry Bomb

I just want this for the record: J.A. Konrath’s Fuzzy Naval was one of the best books that came out last year in my opinion. The pacing in that was incredible and had all the right elements that I’ve enjoyed in the previous Jack Daniel novels. Cherry Bomb, much like Casino Royale’s Quantum of Solace, is the first real sequel in the series. Also much like Quantum, I was underwhelmed by this entry.

After the death of….somebody (This was the cliffhanger to Naval; I don’t wish to ruin it here.), Daniels races after Alex as she continues her streak of evil. This streak has become exhausting for the reader for this is now the third book to feature Alex and her acts have come to the point where they can no longer shock anyone. We want resolution with her, but I didn’t want another chase. Especially a chase that, for the first time in the series, really made me dislike Daniels. That is a rather ballsy move of Konrath and it did make me think about her circumstances. It wasn’t until the introduction of a monkey around the halfway point did the book rejuvenate itself. Ultimately I was satisfied where all the characters ended up and especially where the series could be going. So although this could have used a fresher plot, I’m still heavily anticipating the next entry. (Again, much like Quantum.)