Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mr. Monk in Trouble

Book: Mr. Monk in Trouble
Writer(s): Lee Goldberg

A delightfully unusual Monk book in that in this one he goes back in time! Sort of. The story takes place in the fictional Old West town of Trouble, a town that during the gold rush had a man named Monk who was remarkably like today's Monk. Part of the novel is a diary written by a woman who writes about Monk's exploits in the 1800s, and part of the novel is the modern story of Monk visiting the tiny town of Trouble to solve a murder there. This was fun and a nice change from the regular Monk stories which tend to sound alike after a while, but I have two criticisms. The Old West detective stories all seem to revolve around the same theme of people faking gold discoveries and such, and I wasn't all that intrigued by the modern murder which seemed very paint-by-numbers. That said, just the exotic setting makes this one worth reading. I wouldn't be opposed to a whole novel of the original Old West Monk.


Friday, December 24, 2010

American Psycho

Book: American Psycho

I just recently wrote about my rewatch of the film version, but I finally did finish the audiobook today. This is definitely an unusual book. It's not pleasant (you may literally feel like puking), and it is way, way too long. It's basically one long bit of rambling by a serial killer, talking about his day-to-day life and his really disgusting murders in the same no-nonsense tone. He feels nothing. He's a psychopath. He's a lonely, alienated creature trying to fit in by mimicking the behavior of real humans and not quite getting there. The "gimmick" of the book, if you will, is that because he's wealthy and incredibly good looking, no one believes him capable of murder, even when he practically flaunts it. He walks down the street feeding stray dogs bits of brain of the prostitute he killed. He actually verbally tells girlfriends things like, "I'm feeling very homicidal today," and they don't even notice. He quotes serial killers to his friends and even points out women he'd like to rape and kill and they just think he's being a morbid joker. In other words, this book is a bit of a black comedy. At least that's how I looked at it and was able to get through it. (If I saw this as a documentary, I'd have to shoot myself and give up hope on the human race as a species.) The comedy is very dark and subtle, but that does lend a certain charm and fascination to the story. For instance, my favorite scene (slight spoiler here) is when he serves his fiance a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. He watches her struggle to eat it, trying to pretend it tastes good. That scene epitomizes the entire book for me (it was missing in the film, much to my dismay). This is a guy with a sick sense of humor that no one else in his life gets. He's wanting them to get it, but no one does. That's his tragedy. In many respects, that's why this novel is brilliant and it raises the story to literature. There's also the satire of 1980s Wall Street, obsession with technology, the wealthy, and other aspects American life mocked, but for me the black humor was the key as it actually gets you to sympathize (ever so slightly) with the guy.

In terms of negatives, there are a few. The most significant is the length: the book is very long and much is repetative (endless restaurant meals, descriptions of music and TV shows, boring daily life, etc.). I be you could cut half the scenes out and it would still generate the same feeling. The length does help really hammer home the nails of how messed up this guy is and how utterly pointless his life is, but doesn't need to be that long as we get the idea quickly. The 80s setting is interesting, but it really dates the novel, especially when the guy keeps bragging about his hot technology and it's stuff like a six-CD changer or a casette Walkman and his main excuse to get away from people is to claim he has rented videotapes to return! Also, the endless lists of tech, clothing, and other details gets repetative and boring. I realize it does convey the personality of the psycho narrator, but that doesn't make it any less tedious. Still, despite these issues, the novel succeeds. That's surprising (and impressive) because on the surface this is a plotless story about a disgusting guy murdering people in brutal and horrible ways. Yet it rises above that low-brow shock value and gives us a convincing and sobering portrayal of an intelligent yet extremely flawed creature. Not pleasant, as I said, and not I book I would ever read again, I think, but definitely fascinating.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

True Grit

Movie: True Grit

What a fantastic film! There are so many things that make this amazing, but the best is the language: every line is poetry. I mean that most literally. What's amazing, though, is that even when the most coarse and illiterate criminal low-life speaks poetry in this film it still feels utterly natural and normal, the way such a person would actually speak. I have no idea if they actually spoke so colorfully in the Old West, but I love listening to it. Just wonderful. (My favorite sequence was when the character LaBeef was arguing with the girl and tries to flatter her by saying how he'd originally considered kissing her, but now that she was being such a brat he was considering switching her instead; she responds with a haughty, "Either option would be equally unpleasant.") The film itself is an incredible story about a tough fourteen-year-old girl out to hunt down the man who murdered her father. I never saw the first film or read the book (sadly the novel isn't available on Kindle, which is profoundly stupid), so I can't comment on the differences, but this version is magical. The casting is superb, with everyone utterly convincing in their roles (I barely recognized Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges, as "Rooster" Cogburn, is in the role he was born to play). The young girl is great (though I think it could be more the role than her acting). I really hope this wins a boatload of Oscars. It's a film everyone, especially young women, need to see. Though it's a Western, it isn't that violent: there's really only one scene of close-up violence and though that's pretty intense, it gives the film much needed sobering reality. (It's a critical scene where the girl realizes the true cost of her quest.)

The only bummer for me was the theatre I was at screwed up the airing of the film and so I missed the first few minutes (I did get a free movie ticket, but I'd give that up in a second to see the parts I missed). Just a joy from beginning to end.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron Legacy

Movie: Tron Legacy

The first film is so obviously flawed I was hoping and expecting that this one would fix those issues. For instance, back in 1982 few people understood what a computer was or had even used one, so some of the silly things they created for the film were excusable. But today's audience is more sophisticated -- everyone has a computer and even if you aren't a geek and don't know how it works, I think you're pretty sure there aren't little people inside your computer playing video games! Unfortunately, this new film is just as bad as the original. It makes all the same mistakes: lame non-story, nonsensical plot, promises of philosophical significance but no delivery, and odd scenes and events that don't fit. It's not a terrible movie; just a disappointment. The special effects are fine, though almost too polished (at least in the first film there was a distinct look to the "computer world" -- here it's so realistically rendered it seems as real as our world). The action is pretty good, especially the lightcycle and video game stuff (though the lightcycle strategies weren't always clear the way things were shot and edited). I didn't at all understand what the "audience" was doing watching the video game competitions: why would programs need entertainment? And why would watching others play games be entertaining to a computer program? Most of the characters are weak. I liked the beginning of the film, with the setup of the Bridge's character's from the first film disappearing 20 years earlier and his son setting out to find him, but the film really lost it for me when he finally reunites with his dad -- a dad who supposedly loved him dearly -- and this great reunion lasts a whopping 30 seconds before the dad wanders off without an explanation. Huh? If you were trapping in a hidden world and you finally meet up with the first non-computer person you've met in 20 years, your beloved son, aren't you going to talk to him for more than 30 seconds???? I partially liked Bridges' Zen character: his tendency toward patience made sense considering his predicament and clashed well with his son's brashness, but the implementation of it was poorly done and used for no real purpose (we should have seen evidence of both tactics succeeding so we could know that both characters were partially right). The one good character thing I saw was one scene with Quorra, the girl the boy meets. It was my favorite scene in the film, where she's showing the boy all the books she's read and reveals her favorite is Jules Verne. "Do you know Jules Verne?" she asks. He says, "Sure." She eagerly replies, practically dancing with joy, "Ohh! What's he like?" That was brilliant, revealing her childlike innocence and showing her enthusiasm for the little things. Sadly, that was the only bright spot in the entire film. Otherwise, the characters are just stereotypes. Some have been critical of the digital "youthification" of Jeff Bridges -- but I had no problem with it. He only looked weird to me for a second or two in a couple of scenes. I didn't much get his character, however. He was the evil dictator who early on seemed to delight in destruction, but at the end somehow comes across as only slightly flawed. Huh? Basically, the whole things a muddled mess. The plot is artificial with the conflict forced. I genuinely liked certain scenes, and some of the acting is good. There's still some good to get out of the film. It's worth seeing if you're a fan of the franchise just so you can form your own opinion, and the special effects are cool. But I didn't notice the 3D at all, not even once -- the whole movie was as flat as a pancake as far as I'm concerned. Not worth even an extra penny for the 3D. I didn't hate the film. I wasn't bored. It was interesting, if only to see what they'd done with the digital world. But mainly it's a lot of wasted potential. Three years of labor to produce this? It feels like the script was written in a weekend and the whole thing rushed into production the next day!


Friday, December 17, 2010

The Tourist

Movie: The Tourist

The critics were savaging this so badly I almost didn't go see it. I have no idea what they are talking about. I liked it. It's definitely not a great film. It's definitely flawed. Angelina Jolie is miscast and she and Depp don't have the best chemistry. The plot is weird and the ending predictable, but here's the thing: this is not a serious movie. There's an air of fun to the proceedings, even in the serious scenes, that gives everything a hint of silliness as though the writers, actors, and director are all winking and sharing a joke with us. The Paris and Venice settings are beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the adventure is wild and silly. Take the "boat chase" for instance. I'd read a comment on some website mocking the "slow chase" but when I saw it, I didn't see it as negative, but as a hilarious insider's joke. Basically the boat is moving so slowly (it's towing another boat and can't go fast) that people on land are outrunning the boat on foot! Hilarious! It's not meant to be a true high-adrenaline chase scene, but a spoof of a chase scene. The whole film is a caper. Johnny Depp is having a blast, hamming up his role like he does in the those Pirates movies, but in a far more subtle fashion (here he shows almost robotic expressions, reminding me of his performance in Edward Scissorhands, but there's a hint of a smile as he does so). Jolie looks pretty, but doesn't fit the role of the double agent she's supposed to be, and I thought the suggestion that her million-dollar character "falls in love with any man she spends more than five minutes with" absurd as she comes across as exactly the opposite. Despite the flaws, I had fun, and enjoyed the repartee between the two main characters. The plot is somewhat clever, but succeeds mostly because it doesn't take itself too seriously. The ending is predictable but so satisfying that you don't care. Ignore the critics. Have a sense of humor and go see this film.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Movie: Tron

I wanted to rewatch this before the new one comes out on Friday and it confirmed what I thought I remembered: this is not a great movie. It's slow, odd, doesn't really go anywhere, and the story is so full of holes it makes no sense at all. Its reputation as a classic comes from its innovative concept ("man goes inside computer") at the time of its release. I'm sure back when it first came out the special computer graphic effects and the concept were radical and that allowed people to overlook the flaws. But the story is hokey, and the science is a joke (the computer stuff was obviously written by people who didn't understand computers at all). There are some positives: the computer graphics are passable, even today, and the video games they created -- disc throwing and lightcycle -- are really awesome game concepts. This is a fun movie to rewatch just for its historical aspects, but just don't expect it to be a great film.


Monday, December 13, 2010

American Psycho

Movie: American Psycho

I'm almost finished with the audio book of this novel and though I'd seen the movie a long time ago, I couldn't remember it very well. Let's just say I like the movie much more now, after (almost) reading the book. The movie really does an impressive job of capturing the spirit of the novel. That's great for fans of the book, though not so great those who haven't. The problem is that the novel's satire is subtle. Everything is presented with such seriousness that the satire isn't obvious and that same tone comes across in the film. You really aren't sure if you should laugh or be horrified. For instance, one of my very favorite things that happens in the novel is the way the main psycho killer constantly reveals his homicidal tendencies to his friends who are so clueless they don't even notice. Like he'll order a "decapitated coffee" or tell a bimbo he's in "murders and executions" and no one notices. In the book this sort of humor comes across brilliantly. It's there in the film, but I don't think I even noticed it the first time I saw the movie. It's too quick and we aren't sure what it means. If you've read the book you're prepared for it and it's wonderful.

Christian Bale's performance was a real positive I remembered from the first time I'd seen this and seeing it again, I am even more impressed. He really is fantastic. It's worth seeing this film just for his acting. One funny aside: his character's name is Bateman, just one letter removed from Batman. I found that eerie.

Even the first time I saw the film it seemed tame to me; I couldn't figure out why there were people outraged. Well, after reading most of the book, I understand, because the book is far more daring and outrageous. Ultimately that's my biggest disappointment of the film: it's too timid, as though they don't want us to not like Christian Bale. In the book his character is really repulsive and out there, eating his victims' brains, leaving body parts all over his apartment, immobilizing a girl's hands with a nail gun so he could rape her, and all sorts of really messed up stuff. In comparison, except for one scene where he chases a girl with a chainsaw, there's really little evidence he's that crazy. I don't think they needed to go quite as far as the book, but at least show one scene of him doing something really morbid so we know this is a serious psycho.

Another issue I should point out is the whole 80's setting. I was critical of that in my first viewing of the movie. After reading (most of) the book, I now see that's a key aspect of the book. The setting is almost a character as the novel is, effectively, a satire of the 80s. That was not clear in the film, even in my re-watching. It feels weirdly dated and odd, as though the setting was an afterthought. The setting is there in clothing and few other details, but it doesn't penetrate the atmosphere of the movie. When you do notice it, it just feels misplaced.

Overall, this is a fascinating film. It's definitely better if you've read the book, though, which is unusual for a film adaptation. The book isn't perfect (I'll comment on that when I finish it) and the film improves on the book in a few ways but falls short in others. Ultimately it's not quite great, but it does have some great aspects and a few classic scenes. Definitely worth seeing if you like Christian Bale and/or have read the book.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Movie: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I meant to reread the book before seeing the film, but didn't make it, which might be a good thing as otherwise I'd be more critical of changes from the source material. As it is, it felt pretty authentic. It's one of the more visual of the Narnia stories, an exciting ship journey with encounters with unusual creatures and people. The trailer had me worried because it showed all the kids from the earlier films in this one, while in the book it's just a couple of them, but that fear proved unfounded as the older kids are only there briefly. The actress who plays Lucy was frightfully young in the earlier films, but comes to her own here and is surprisingly good, showing a developing maturity which fits her character. Though there are some issues with the pacing and a few confusing editing problems, the movie does capture the spirit of the book pretty well. I'm not sure the film quite gets to greatness, but I did find the ending, with the loss of several characters, to be surprisingly emotional. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommend it. (Though we'll see if I'm as happy after I've reread the novel.)


Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Movie: Faster

I was mildly interested in this until I heard the revenge plot, which sounded like stuff I'd already seen. But I went anyway and was surprised: it's actually a decent film. Not great, with plenty of flaws, but it's above average for an action movie. There's not actually that much action -- it's more about the plot, which is a little heavy-handed, but it's got some interesting (though predictable) twists.