Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl EarringGirl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, wow, wow! Now here's a book I never imagined I would fall in love with. I actually picked up this little gem at an Oktoberfest where they had this small nook for used books. I picked it up on a whim, and man, what a find! I'm not really into historical fiction, but this book hits all the right notes. It's about one of Vermeer's most well-known paintings, the titular Girl With a Pearl Earring. What follows is a hearty group of characters and backgrounds that feel so real you'll think it's the genuine story of the famous painting. I'll be picking up the rest of Ms. Chevalier's books. Man, can she write!

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With this being the third book I've read of Hardy's (the other two being The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure) I'm convinced Thomas Hardy was incapable of writing anything but tragedies. Fortunately, he was very good at it. The Return of the Native is another I - can't - believe - their -luck book where anything that can go wrong, does go wrong. But at least Hardy was a master of plotting, so nothing appeared out of the blue. The "native" in question doesn't return until about 140 pages, but there's enough going on throughout that it's rarely boring. Except somewhere toward the beginning, which is a bit of a slog. Past that point, though, and it really moves. It's because of the characters. They're myriad, but all feel very real and full. When characters are in pain, you understand why, even though it might be a bit petty and because of a misunderstanding. In fact, much of this book's tragedy is because people are being misunderstood, which fits its period of the transitioning between Christianity and Paganism. Overall, Hardy made another exceptional book, and I'm a little confused as to why I've been told by a number of people that it's boring. I mean, yes, if you're forced to read it in school, I can see where you'd be bored. But anybody who reads it for leisure will find a thoroughly well-developed and engaging novel. I loved it.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why Mulholland Dr. is the Scariest Movie Of All Time

What's the scariest movie of all time? Is it The Exorcist? The Shining? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No, it's David Lynch's, Mulholland Dr, and mostly because nobody would consider it a horror movie at all. Well, besides Vulture, which did an excellent job of detailing just why it's such a terrifying movie.

But yeah, the scares in Mulholland Dr. mostly lie in the fact that it's not billed as a horror movie, even though it's arguably scarier than any demonic child or naked old woman chilling in a bathroom. David Lynch, for those who don't know, operates in nightmares. Eraserhead, which is another "is this horror?" movie, detailed the internal fears of becoming a father and...God knows what else. But every frame of Lynch's first film has an unsettling quality to it that troubles you long after the movie is over. And the same goes for most of Lynch's films that aren't Dune (Though, that's horrifying for its own reasons), or that Disney movie he made about the guy on the lawnmower.

But Mulholland Dr. is something else entirely. While most of his movies are fever dreams put to film, Mulholland Dr. is his clearest nightmare. It's the little things that stick with you , like the infamous Winkie's scene, where a homeless man pops out from behind a dumpster.

What's so unnerving about this scene, and why it still freaks me out even though I know it's coming, is because it shouldn't happen. Horror movies operate on making you either jump in your seat or hide down into it with the fear of what's going to happen next. But this scene does both. Yes, there's that ghastly sharp sound that Lynch loves to employ to freak you out, but it's not a jump scare, not really, since you're told what's going to happen long before it happens. Horror movies, at least the good ones, make you tense because they try to relax you with exposition before they shock you. This is why the greatest horror movies really get under your skin in fear of what's right around the corner. But Mulholland Dr. takes that "what's around the corner" idea literally for this one scene, which begins in a diner with a man telling another man about one of his dreams. This is realistic, as who hasn't had a really creepy dream and just felt the need to pour it out to somebody else? But once we tell somebody about that dream, we usually tend to feel a sense of dread in reliving it, even if it's only through words. It's like telling the dream is conjuring up the possibility that it could be real, and only David Lynch would take that concept and MAKE it real in his story. It makes you question your own nightmares and the power they have over you. And any movie that can make you afraid of your own dreams WHILE YOU'RE AWAKE is freaking terrifying, and Mulholland Dr. does just that.

But what about all the other moments in the movie that just don't feel right? Like the cowboy without eyebrows.

Or even the way the film opens with a bizarre jitterbug scene, which feels both anachronistic and out of place.

But probably the scariest scene in the whole movie is the moment you realize the characters are just as bothered as you are while you watch what looks like a Spanish rendition of the Roy Orbison song, "Crying" only to realize that something else sinister is going on in the scene that your mind has to scramble to understand.

In truth, that might be Mulholland Drive's and most of Lynch's films greatest quality--the fact that your mind is trying to keep up and understand what is going on. But it can't, because your mind doesn't typically dissect nightmares, which is once again why I think Mulholland Dr. is the scariest movie of all time. It asks you to address your subconscious in a way that no other film--especially not a horror film--has done before or since. That's why Mulholland Dr. is officially the scariest. Movie. Ever. No other film comes close.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Top Eight Tarantino Films, Ranked

Tarantino can do no wrong. Until he can. While all of his films have been interesting to say the very least, some have been less interesting than others. Here’s a list of his best and worst films, all ranked. What are your favorite Quentin Tarantino movies?

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8. Death Proof

The second film in the epic Grindhouse double feature (The first being Planet Terror by Robert Rodriquez), Death Proof is a slow grind with an amazing pay-off. Meant to be a homage to 70s slasher flicks, Tarantino went a bit too far with the dialogue in this one. It comes off as being even more annoying than it needs to be, which was sort of the point but it's kind of lost here. And I’m not the only one who’s not a fan of this flick as Tarantino himself said it was his worst movie. Even with that amazing chase scene at the end, it still didn't make much of an impact.

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7. Kill Bill

Kill Bill is, I think, a great demarcation of Tarantino’s career. Prior to this movie, Tarantino made loving homages to his favorite genre pictures, but they played like genuine cinema. But Kill Bill is probably the first real Tarantino movie, in which his personal style overshadowed the story and he started making HIS kind of movies. Yes, the violence set to catchy music was there before. But the striking visuals and more playful nature that was only hinted at in Pulp Fiction takes full effect in Kill Bill. This is most noticeable in part 1, which is more style over substance. In the end, what felt fresh upon the first viewing, felt a little stale upon its second and third viewings, and outright kitschy by the fourth and fifth. Part 2 is much better than Part 1, but as a whole, it’s a very lopsided picture and one that doesn’t hold up over time.

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6. Django Unchained

Django (or, Djangoooooo!) is a movie that should have ended a half an hour earlier than it did. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, which I’ll get to in a second, the style is consistent here. It’s an ultraviolent, silly movie throughout with Jamie Foxx looking cool, and Christoph Waltz playing the perfect, Obi-Wan mentor character. It’s a really fun film, and Leonardo DiCaprio stands out as a cocky plantation owner, but overall, it doesn’t feel entirely complete. It’s an issue of where less would have actually been more, if that makes any sense (After the gunfight in the mansion, I think it should have ended). It’s…an okay picture. And it’s also his most successful movie. But when pitted against his superior films, it’s a little mediocre.

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5. Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds is a movie that is inconsistency glorious. There are moments in this film, like the tense Christoph Waltz conversation about Jews beneath the floorboards, or the bar scene, that are probably the best work Tarantino has ever done. But then, there are moments where people put explosives on their fists and punch with them that really take away from the grandness of it all. The climax is phenomenal, but the journey there could have used more polishing. This is what I meant by the whole Kill Bill demarcation. If this was made pre-Kill Bill, it probably would have eliminated all the silly moments.

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4. Reservoir Dogs

Within the first ten minutes of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino cemented himself as a fresh new voice that would forever change cinema. But Reservoir Dogs is not just a movie of scene-stealing moments, though it certainly has those. Beneath that fantastic soundtrack and that icky ear lopping scene, there is a fully-realized, well-paced movie. It's little wonder that it improves with repeated viewings. It’s slower than most of his later work, but it’s satisfying to the very end, even when you know who the rat is. This movie still holds up today!

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3. The Hateful Eight

I know it’s a bit premature to put a film I just saw a couple of days ago so high on this list, but man, I just can’t stop thinking about The Hateful Eight. From the sparseness of the scenery, to the authentic dialogue, to the gritty characters, to the pacing, to the impeccable score, to that ending, everything in The Hateful Eight just works for me. It really feels like a Tarantino who was more interested in telling a story than what he had been doing for the past few years. In other words, the old Tarantino was back. For that reason, I put it so high up on this list. Now, I might watch it again some other time and wonder, what the hell was I thinking? (I really loved Kill Bill when it first came out, too). I might also not be as invested now that I know how the mystery unfolds, but who knows? Maybe it will hold up like Reservoir Dogs. Only time will tell.

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2. Jackie Brown

A lot of people complain that Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s worst movie (Have they not SEEN Death Proof?). But here’s the thing. They’re wrong. If Jackie Brown had come out post-Kill Bill, there’s little doubt that it would have pushed its blaxploitation to the fullest, but this was a calmer Tarantino, a more reserved one. In that way, he created a masterpiece that touched on the spirit of blaxploitation, but felt more like a crime thriller, which is what it was. What I love the most about Jackie Brown is that it isn’t a loud movie, unlike his later films. Instead, it’s more about loud moments, which have the tendency to startle you, which is fantastic. It all unravels to a satisfying conclusion. Jackie Brown is, in every way, Tarantino's hidden masterpiece.

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1. Pulp Fiction

Is Pulp Fiction the easy pick for Tarantino’s best movie? Yes. Is it the correct pick? Also yes. Unfortunately for Tarantino, he will never make a movie better than Pulp Fiction. And it was only his second film! There are just too many moments that have infiltrated pop culture and have shaped the medium as a whole, that none of his later films can touch it. It’s the movie that made him a household name. But it’s not just the relevance that sells it. It’s the whirling story in itself which pulls a great deal from the classic Japanese film, Rashomon, what with its various intertwining stories. Each chapter is captivating to the very end, and it’s most certainly his most audacious and awe-inspiring movie. For that reason, it will always be his best.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: Beloved

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beloved is the kind of book that demands re-reading, but it's so maddening to get through once that you won't want to pick it up again. The scenes of slavery are probably the harshest I've ever read, and the unconventional approach to story-telling, which melds reality with magical realism, creates a story that is weaving and glorious at times, and obfuscating and frustrating at others. It's certainly masterfully written.

But here's my problem with it. Its structure could be a little smoother. Yes, everything unwinds itself eventually, and yes, it does all make sense in the end, but there are some telly moments that kind of feel like an info dump. I think I would have enjoyed it a little more if some of the plot remained a bit more hidden and the reader had to make their own interpretation, but oh well. Either way, this is a masterpiece. Showing slavery in a fierce and metaphysical way was a gamble, but it paid off. It's no wonder Morrison won the Pulitzer, and later the Nobel prize for this book.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why The New Star Wars is Kind of Like Creed, But Not As Good (No Spoilers)

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It's Sunday, and by now, you've likely already watched the new Star Wars movie. And if you haven't, then you're probably in a cineplex watching it right now. If you're the latter, read this later. If you're the former, read this now. There are no spoilers either way, so you don't have to worry if you're in the third group that might be seeing it next week.

Now, while I know everybody LOVES this new movie, I feel kind of cold to it. It's not that it's bad. It's just that it's recycled meat. I wanted a Harold's sandwich, and I got Subway instead. It has several callbacks to the original trilogy, but most of it is just fan service. And that's okay. I don't have a problem with a film that rests on its own laurels. If any franchise deserves it, it's Star Wars, especially after the last abysmal trilogy. I'll compare it to Street Fighter III. Now, stay with me for a moment. After Street Fighter II, people wanted the next evolution of the series. But then, no, they realized they didn't, since SF III introduced brand new characters and was totally different from its predecessor. Where was Guile? Where was Blanka? M. Bison? Nowhere to be seen. In many ways, it was viewed as interesting but a failure at the same time that didn't grip the mainstream audience as much as it could have. Street Fighter IV, on the other hand, was seen as a return to form. All of your favorite World Warriors were brought back to the fight, and everything seemed back on track, even if it was really just SF 2 with a new coat of paint. Now, I'm not saying that Street Fighter III is comparable to the prequels. God no. I actually LOVE SF 3 and consider it my favorite Street Fighter. But it was something different when people really just wanted more of the same. And that's what Episode VII is. More of the same. That's not to say that's a bad thing. But it's been done before, and the film is more just simpering fan service than anything else. It's for all the scorned fans out there who wanted to love Star Wars again. This film was for them. All the rest, well, you're welcome as well. The Mouse House doesn't discriminate.

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But there was another movie this year that also recycled from its past, but this time, to great effect. Creed, in every way, plucked and pulled the best elements of Rocky and sprinkled them all throughout the recent Creed. But here's the difference between Creed and Episode VII, and why the former was fantastic and the latter was lacking. Creed recognizes the past and adds it into the story, but it doesn't circle the entire plot around it. It's there, and it's relevant, but it's more for thematic purposes (Rocky is still fighting. It's just cancer this time), rather than for the audience to clap and whistle everytime something nostalgic graces the screen.

In every way, it seems like Episode VII was a mea culpa to the fans and a suggestion that we're turning this ship around. It also felt like it was just building toward more films, while Creed stood tall on its own and felt fresh, even though it really wasn't fresh at all. Creed had heart, and The Force Awakens felt devoid of heart. Sure, there's hope, and a more apt subheader for this film would have been "Another New Hope." But it's really just a film for the fans, and nothing more. Creed was a genuinely good story that tugged at the heart strings, and for the next SW, I want more Creed and less The Force Awakens. Hopefully, they make that happen.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review: Bushido: The Soul of Japan

Bushido: The Soul of Japan. A Classic Essay on Samurai EthicsBushido: The Soul of Japan. A Classic Essay on Samurai Ethics by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are times when Bushido: The Soul of Japan is almost poetic. But I think that's more the subject matter rather than the actual writing, since the actual writing verges on being pedantic at times. Seriously, I had to read certain lines three or four times just to get the gist of what he was saying, which felt totally unnecessary. Mr. Nitobe was a man who must have loved to hear himself talk. But I guess that's just how people wrote back in 1900, which is when the book was published. Predating both World Wars, the idea and conscience of Bushido probably seemed much more alive back then that it does today. Still, this acts as a sort of winsome time capsule of the better times. It also acts as a nice companion to any of the James Clavell samurai novels, which I'm sure Clavell pulled a great deal from this book.

But there is a bit of a discrepancy in that the author was a devout Christian, and some of the beliefs of Shintoism don't align with that of the author's, so it doesn't feel as entirely authentic as it might have. Even so, there are certain aspects of this, like the talk of seppuku and the sword that are fascinating, and others not so much. It's a relatively short book with a lot of depth. All in all, it was okay.

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