Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bite-Sized Reviews: Cinderella, Interstellar, and More

International flights are lovely places to catch up with recent movie releases, and I found myself watching a few thought-provoking flicks while traveling back to the States this weekend.

Since I don't have the time (or motivation) to write long reviews, I'm going to give a few paragraphs per movie to detail my bite-sized opinions on some recent blockbusters.  Check it out:


Four stars.

One sentence: Ambitious, ambiguous, and messy—it is thought-provoking but the structure is all over the place, and the themes leave some to be desired.

Christopher Nolan is perhaps one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking filmmakers alive, and Interstellar proves to be worthy of his imagination.  But the structure of Interstellar was sorely lacking, having little pacing consistency (jumping from slow-mo to stress-mode in moments) and leaving large portions of interesting footage that was not necessary footage, dragging the movie on...and on...and on.

For all that, it still managed to be a thrill ride, part Inception and part Apollo 13. It accomplished something that few movies do: it gave me genuine doubt that the story would resolve in a satisfying manner, and whether the characters would make it out alive.  And the alien planet scenes were pure and haunting imagination.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but the movie wrapped up making me feel vaguely dissatisfied.  The last thirty minutes of the film stretched my belief rather than my mind, and regardless of whether the physics work out or not, it felt too convenient.  Nolan's themes, too, felt like too many questions with too few answers—and the answers that could be found felt shallow.

Interstellar, however, is ultimately thought-provoking and even haunting.  Regardless of its flaws, it is still a "deep movie," and that makes it worth the ride—and worth a watch.


Four stars.

One sentence: Cinderella is a fairy-tale in the best, most magical sense of the word—something heavy-laden in earnest wonder, even if it stumbles once or twice along the way.

I did not expect to like Cinderella.  I had heard both good things and (relatively) bad things about it, so I went in with an open mind.

And yes, it suffered from a few Disney moments.  The dialogue was occasionally stiff and overwrought (which is more a symptom of the storytelling style than anything,) several places were dry with princess movie cliches, and occasionally it stayed true to the original to the detriment of the script.

But in the context of the story, all that was fairly minor in the face of the movie's one great strength: earnest storytelling.  Lily James plays the titular character with quiet determination and real, honest kindness.  The movie is really earnest and tries to find real beauty without being cliche or cynical.  In a word, it was wholesome.

And wholesomeness is what makes it really good.  The lavish staging and costumes make it visually stunning—the acting is all great, with Cate Blanchett especially standing out by being so spectacularly sinister.  The tweaks to the original story (which I won't spoil) made it much, much stronger.  And the theme—have courage, be kind—is both simple and effective.  The movie does not wring it out or tack it on; it is simply an integral part of the movie, as it should be, with a few startling moments of surprising eloquence.

Yes, Disney princess movies might not be your cup of tea.  But you may find yourself surprised at how good Cinderella actually is.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Three stars.

One sentence: Miles better than The Desolation of Smaug and nearly comparable to An Unexpected Journey, I just hold one thing against it: it cannot hold a candle to the original book or to the trilogy that follows it.

Let's be honest, here.  After the train wreck that was The Desolation of Smaug, I was expecting Battle to be another installment of CGI: The Movie.  So when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised.  The pacing was smooth, and instead of trying to make another Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson opted to film a halfway decent story.  Many of the battle scenes were too long, but the urgency behind them was more like Jackson's Lord of the Rings style, moving the plot along rather than stagnating it.

Unlike Smaug, Battle had an emotional core and a theme: Thorin's internal struggle between his honor and his greed.  But that sword cuts both ways: The Hobbit was no longer about the hobbit.  If there was any main character in Battle, it was Thorin.  Bilbo, still being well-played by the excellent Martin Freeman, would disappear for whole scenes before popping up later on.

But ultimately, as "pretty okay" as Battle was, it makes me ashamed to think that Peter Jackson compromised the emotional and storytelling achievement found in Lord of the Rings.  There is just no comparison.  And in the end, The Battle of Five Armies became just another big-budget action flick: not bad, but not nearly as good as it should have been.


What about you?  What did you think of these movies?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How a Blog Grows Up: Part I

Many seasons ago, when Christian speculative fiction was just beginning to gain traction and the young acolytes of Bryan Davis, Donita K. Paul, and Wayne Thomas Batson were many, a teenager started a blog.

Over the course of the next five years, he alternated between gushing about his favorite books and lecturing importantly on how writing works. (It is questionable how much he actually knew about the writing process, but it's all about how confidently you speak!) Slowly, the blog evolved. The old, narrow, yellow blog was replaced by a wider white one, with a yellowed book in the background. The number of readers grew (inexplicably,) and gradually the teenager's obsessive love of comments declined.

As the years went by, his subject of his blog wandered in a generally content universe of almost anything having to do with writing. And as the teenager began to grow up, moving to West Africa, the number of posts waned; but some people still (inexplicably) found it entertaining and continued to read. His posts grew longer, more thoughtful; the book reviews were almost books in themselves.

And now, here we are. The teenager is an old teenager. The blog is now mostly white, with an old header and funny sidebars. If you sniff really carefully, you can detect a lingering fear that it might be three months till the next post. 

There is also a breeze in the air, because it is the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. The time grows near when Teenage Writer must grow up.

But it's a good thing, I promise. It's less of a death as it is a new life. Like I said in my last post, the name and place is going to change, but the essence will remain. With that, I'm going to write a few posts detailing how I plan on changing things up. It's not 100% clear yet (and it may take some wandering to get definite ideas for everything) but I hope that these posts will make it clearer.

This first post has to do with something that has, from the beginning, been an essential part of Teenage Writer: reviews. I've always liked analyzing things. (My personality type is INTP, if you want to know; the detached analyst.) So reviews always came easily to me—short reviews, not so much.

And as I've grown older, I've discovered a new taste for stories of all mediums. Film criticism is something I've been picking up over time, and studying the box office has become a hugely enjoyable hobby. (Let's not even get into animation. I could write for hours.)  So with that in mind, here is what I'm thinking about how my reviews will change.

1. I'll include multiple mediums—primarily movies, books, and TV shows.

Good stories can come from anywhere, to paraphrase a certain Pixar movie. I used to digest stories almost entirely through reading, but I've discovered a lot of incredible stories (and storytellers) in the last two or three years, mostly through watching movies and TV shows. Old and new.

So whenever I discover a story I really like (or dislike,) I'll do my best to write a relevant review, so I can share it with you guys. Good stories deserve to be talked about—and it's always best to warn people about the bad ones.

2. I'm converting to a five-star system.

I dearly love my old, clunky, decimal-ridden ten-point system. But using five stars is simpler and more universal. So at the beginning of each review, I'll give a rating based on the five-star system. (And I'm only going down to .5 when it comes to decimals, I promise.)

3. Thumbnail reactions. 

Also at the beginning of each review, I'll summarize it in a brief paragraph. It'll make it easier for people to tell whether or not they will want to read the whole review. It's also really fun to come up with clever thumbnails. Just sayin'.

4. Comparisons and pundit chat. 

I like being a pundit; it's entertaining. So where possible, I want to compare books and movies and shows to other stories of the same type—and analyze where the genres and industries are going. (In some cases, I want to write pundit posts without any review at all. I have one such post coming up soon that I think you'll really enjoy.)

Specifically, with movies, I'll probably talk box office—that eerie realm where $30 million dollars in three days makes a movie a certified flop. (See: Tomorrowland.)

To be completely honest with you, it's not because I think you'll care about how many millions of dollars a movie is going to make. It's because it's super fun to write about, yo.

So those are some of the ways my reviews will change. As for what I'll be reviewing, well, I have several books up my sleeve. And because I am so flipping excited for Pete Docter's Inside Out, Pixar's June release, I'll probably write a review shortly after it comes out. I plan on seeing it opening weekend.

(In case you wanted to know, it currently has 19 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and they're all glowing. It sits at a rapturous 100%—it's too early to tell if it'll stay there, but the last Pixar movie to hit 100% was Toy Story 2. Gah!)

Till next time!