Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Review Much?": A Plethora of Thoughts on Things I've Read and Watched This Past Year

I did a few review round ups at the end of last year, but I still epically failed at covering all the different things I've watched and read over 2011. I'm still not going to catch everything here, but I've got a few thoughts on some of the stuff I've read/watched this year.

And if you checked out one of the above collection of reviews, you'll notice I promised a full in depth review of Stephen King's first short story collection, Night Shift, and I do intend on writing that up still. For today, it is a grab bag of assorted review of things that I vaguely remember watching and reading.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:
I jumped on this train a few years late. I didn't read this book for the first time until 2007, when I had to do it for a University course. I steered clear of the novel up until that point for two reasons. One was the fact it was so popular at the time and I was just sick of hearing about it constantly. The other reason was that almost everyone who had read it kept telling me how much I'd love the novel. I have had a bad experience with entertainment that is heavily hyped and people "guarantee" that I'll love it. I remember people promising that Napoleon Dynamite would be a nonstop laughfest and Gladiator was one of the most epic films ever (and since I love Braveheart, I'd be amazed). Well, I ended up hating both movies, and I think a lot of it was due to super raised expectations going into it. I've since re-watched Gladiator, and I did end up really liking it -- so, I realize a lot of the original hate just comes from people promising it will be an all-time favourite.

I'm happy to admit that Harry Potter was the exception to the rule. I fell in love with this book instantly, and gobbled it up in less than two days (it helps the first book is really short). I love entertainment that reminds me of the magic and excitement I had as a child. There were certain works that had the power to sweep me off to far off worlds and lands, and it would cause my imagination to soar to amazing heights. This novel had the ability to do this to me as an adult, and filled me with fond memories of my childhood. I sort of wish this book existed when I was a child, because I'd have had a blast creating my own versions of the Potter universe in my backyard.

J.K. Rowling does an unbelievable job of creating this fantastic world with its own mythology and history. It is the type of world building that most fantasy writers wish they could do as half as well. The scope is remarkable and the depth of characters is unparalleled. You're going to have to look at epics like The Lord of the Rings to find a universe that is so meticulously constructed and filled with such fascinating creatures.

I tried to come up with some criticisms of the first novel, but any I found were quickly squashed when I realized, "Oh yeah, this is a kid's book." The writing can be simplistic in parts, and the storytelling has a habit of going "this and then this and then this." It is also being written for people in elementary school and so you'd lose them if you went too in depth or complicated. The fact that I have to remind myself it is a "kid's book" shows how this novel does a fantastic job of appealing to several generations. It is one of the all-time classic works of fantasy despite not even being 20 years old yet.

You may be wondering why I'm reviewing a book that I read back in 2007, but that is because I did reread it in 2011. And I'm sure this will be a book that will get reread several times over the next several years and decades (and I can't wait for my son to start reading the series either).

Once Upon a Time: And now for another series that shifts from the "real" world to the "fantasy" world. I missed a few episodes at the end of 2011 due to spending a ridiculous amount of time typing in front of my computer, but I've been able to catch up with the new batch that has been served up this year. I'm really loving this series, and enjoying the "flashbacks" that are slowly revealing each fairy tale characters' history. My favourite was the episode that spotlighted Rumpelstiltskin, because it actually showed him as a sympathetic character and revealed that his "evilness" came from making a bad decision (which was done in an attempt to "protect" his son). I like when characters are "shades of grey" rather than pure good and pure evil, and this series has done a great job in showing some sympathetic elements in their main villains (there was also an episode that showed the evil queen's love for her father, but she sacrificed him due to her obsession with getting rid of Snow White). I'm also enjoying the twists on the well-known fairy tales, and how they've tried to incorporate all the characters into one main universe.

If the writers are patient and they plot out well in advance, then this show has potential to go strong for several seasons. It may take some "writer gymnastics" to continue to have Emma not fully believe Henry, especially when he continues to turn out to be right. I also think they can continue the series long after Emma finds out the truth, because if she knows there is a curse doesn't mean she'll instantly be able to vanquish it.

I'm also intrigued by the writer character that just mysteriously showed up in the last episode. I wonder what exactly his tie to the fantasy world is. Did he write the fairy tale book that Henry had that told him about the other world? Is this man the creator of the other universe? Did Emma basically talk to the fairy tale god? Or is he just some schmuck carrying a typewriter (dude, it's the 2010s!) who just happened to stumble upon the crazy town of Storybrooke (which then means Henry is wrong that no visitors ever come to the village). I'm not sure what direction they will go, but I do know I'm hooked.

Inglourious Basterds:
I really like Quentin Tarantino. I want to throw that out there right away. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are too of my all-time favourite films and are examples of why he is a brilliant film maker. I also think he has now created a rep of being a quirky and "70s grind house" style filmmaker, and he feels he has to live up to that standard. It means he'll add some elements that aren't necessary to the story or film. He'll put in symbolism that actually hampers the message. I liked this movie; I really did. I felt the Tarantino style was actually a detriment in parts. He added "camp" that should have been played serious. He threw in his "charm" and "quirk" at times that made the film a mess rather than make it feel original. His style isn't original anymore -- that is the problem. He wants to continue to be an innovator in film making then he needs to break away from his "style" and actually try to something unexpected.

This movie was completely mistitled. The Basterds were around for about half of the film. It should have been called A Little Jewish Girl Who Buys a Cinema and Uses It to Exact Her Revenge on the Nazis. Okay, that title sucks too, but it would have at least given me a better idea of what the movie is about. The Basterds main purpose seemed to be to screw up the girls plans, and prove they maybe weren't the amazing fighting machines that we assumed they were. I found it frustrating that we were lead to believe they were this elite Nazi hunting force, yet they were so easily tricked and duped at the climax of the film.

I also think the film would have played better if they kept the camp to strictly when the Basterds were on the screen and played things more seriously for the girl's scenes. It would have been a nice juxtaposition and also displayed Tarantino's message better. Then you could have the two elements and styles crash together at the end of the film. I also want to throw in that I felt it disappointing that they did all this hinting at the Nazi general possibly knowing about the girl's plan but never gave the proper pay off to that storyline. I felt the film was a mess in parts, and critics and awards shows may have given Tarantino the benefit of the doubt due to his reputation.

I also want to make it clear that I really did like the movie. Tarantino is the master of atmosphere and creating unique dialogue. It was a fun popcorn mucher. I just felt it could have been much better, and it was Tarantino's need to follow a certain style that hurt the film.

A Time to Kill: I'm a big John Grisham fan, but after all his novels, I still think his very first book is the best. Grisham had a message and a story he passionately wanted to tell, and he didn't have the reputation of legal thrillers to hamper his style. It allowed for a raw and rough book that wasn't afraid to show the dirty and horrid side of society. It doesn't paint the Deep South in a flattering way, but it also doesn't make most of the characters appear straight evil either. It has lots of grey. The novel doesn't even try to resolve all the issues or allow good to full triumph. It leaves you a little unsettled. It presents "protagonists" that you don't totally feel comfortable with. This is why I love this novel so much. It reflects the real world with all its grime and skeletons in the closet. Grisham has a message he really wanted to tell, and he does it the most compelling and engrossing way possible. Grisham is a fantastic novelist, but his best story will always likely be the one he first published.

What happens when a black man kills two white boys that brutally raped his daughter? More importantly, what happens when this was done in the Deep South where racial tension still exists? It is a story that works on many levels. I am sure many fathers can relate to the rage the character felt when his child had been violated and he wasn't able to protect his precious child. I've been a father for less than a month, but I still already have an ingrained instinct inside that tells me that I will protect my son at all costs. Then this novel throws in the race card, and makes us look at the racism that still exists. Yes, this novel is set in the Deep South, but the reality is, racism doesn't just reside there. It doesn't just plague the United States. This story often made me think about the many issues and tensions that exist right here in Brantford. This book from the mid-80s about the Deep South still resonates with a Canadian living in the early 2010s.

I also find this book fascinating by the behaviour and dialogue that slips in. I am pretty sure Grisham would never write a protagonist to talk and behave this way in a novel written now. The characters constantly throw out the vile "N" word and most of the times are driving while chugging back a six pack. The novel really is a window into a decade that truly is long past, and shows how much our society has already changed. I also recently read John Grisham's The Confession, which is another great book, and it really jumped out at me how different the characters are despite dealing with similar matter. His recent novel also explores racism and how the convicted was unfairly treated likely due to his skin colour, but the language and behaviour is so different compared to A Time to Kill. The difference is likely due to the novels being written in different decades that contain very different mindsets.

Hell on Wheels: I never totally got behind the main character or engrossed in the story of this AMC series set right after the American Civil War. I stuck to the show, because I thought the setting and atmosphere was fantastic. I am a history buff, so I really wanted to like this show. I've now got several episodes behind, and I'm wondering if it is worth trying to catch up. Does anyone watch this series? Did it start to get better after the first few episodes?

Horrible Bosses/30 Minutes or Less: I'm lumping these two movies together, because they both had the same problem. I wanted to see them both, because they had actors that I'm fans of and who usually have pretty funny movies. The trailer looked amusing for both of these films. The problem is that Hollywood has fallen into a comedy film formula that they've decided makes money and gets asses in the plush cinema cushion seats. This formula has essentially created films that are passable, but don't stand out in anyway. You walk away thinking it was fine, but you also end up forgetting everything about it before you fall asleep. There wasn't any major laugh out loud moments or anything that sticks in my head for 5 minutes. The movies were okay, but I don't want okay. I want hilarious and memorable. I wanted the actors to do something crazy and create characters that you'd laugh about many years later. Instead, it was two movies that were just sort of there and pulled off the same type of jokes I've been watching for years. The comedy film is getting stale, and it is time for a director to be brave and present something very different. You know, something that is funny -- but not something that was funny two years ago. I know those jokes. I want something new, and something that will make Coke shoot out of my nostrils. My nostrils haven't had a good dose of Coke in a long time.

A Complicated Kindness: Miriam Toews novel about a teenage Mennonite girl trying to cope in her small community with her father after both her mother and sister left is really unique. I know this novel with no clear plot and from the perspective of an angsty teenage girl isn't for everyone. I'm sure someone will get frustrated with the nonlinear storytelling and the fact Nomi jumps all over the place with her thoughts. I thought, Miriam did an amazing job of making it seem like the authentic journal of a girl who is wrestling with her beliefs and trying to understand what is going on with her family. I didn't see the novel as an attack on religion, but rather one that questions ideologies and mindlessly following dogma. It is an extremely deep novel, especially for one that retells numerous tales about smoking up and chilling out in the back of a truck (not what you peg for profound storytelling). I was compelled by the book because it really seemed like the authentic thoughts of a teenager that is rebelling against the conformity of a religion that has been pushed on her by the community. It isn't just all rebellion and anarchy. There is sweetness, especially in the deep relationship between Nomi and her father. There is also a unique bond and love between the entire family even if the mother and sister are long departed. It is definitely one of my favourite novels, and something that dares to try something unique and different.

Suburgatory:
Speaking of something that dares to try something different, this is a sitcom that actually is fresh, funny, and original. It has done a fair balance of tackling real issues while also not being afraid to be a little off the wall. The characters in this suburb are ridiculous and over the top, but somehow the writers are still able to make them relatable and people you care about. It helps that Tessa and her father are strong characters and realistically portrayed (and have a wonderful relationship), and thus helps to hold the whole thing together.

I find that How I Met Your Mother and The Office have started to get a little stale and are stuck on a treadmill. I watch them more out of the fact I've been committed to them for so many years and that they do have their occasional classic episode. Meanwhile, Suburgatory has consistently been able to present fresh stories and you know, actually make me laugh. It is nice to actually laugh during show that claims it is supposed to be funny. I still think Modern Family owns the crown for best sitcom, but Suburgatory is a worthy challenger.

Wasting Light: I didn't watch or read this latest album by the Foo Fighters, but I did love it. As most of the bands I've grown up with have either disbanded or stuck to the occasional reunion tour, it is nice to have the fighters of foo to consistently knock out high quality albums. I can't think of an album from them that hasn't at least jammed half the CD with blow away songs and the rest with stuff that eventually grows on you. This album is no exception, but this time I fell in love with almost everything on this disc. The songs have a nice mix of super hard rocking anthems to some sweet little ballads to songs you can't properly define but love anyway. It's perfect Foo Fighters and a CD that would have got way more play this year if we didn't hide all our CDs away during renovations earlier in 2011.

I've got way more books and CDs and films that I'd like to babble on and on about, but this should be enough to fill you up for today.

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