In 2009, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut “District 9” punched audiences in the stomach with its gut-wrenching realism and gripping social commentary. The emotional bruising left in its wake didn’t just seize viewer attention though, it captured Hollywood’s too. Struck by Blomkamp’s creativity with a smaller budget, the industry decided to offer him a larger one for his sophomore effort “Elysium.” Working inside the Hollywood machine can be tricky however, since directors often compensate for greater resources with major creative compromises. What’s miraculous about Blomkamp’s flick is that it doesn’t seem like he sacrificed anything, because “Elysium” is a grim, arresting picture.
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Have you ever reached the end of a book and felt completely confused about what happened? Maybe you had a hard time with one of those “classics” filled with symbolism that you were forced to read in school. I’m not talking about tomes like that though. Have you ever been totally befuddled by a modern, run-of-the-mill novel? If you still answered “No,” you’re lucky, because I can’t say the same after finishing Danie Ware’s sci-fi/fantasy tale “Ecko Rising.”
I can normally handle science fiction literature, but I’m not used to fantasy. At first I thought my inexperience with the genre is why I didn’t get “Ecko Rising.” However as a fairly intelligent person capable of processing complex concepts daily, that rationale didn’t make sense to me. I also wondered if I struggled because Ware’s novel is the first in an intended series. Perhaps I needed to read another one to grasp her yarn? That couldn’t be it either, since I’ve gone through other multi-volume story arcs and still understood the first book. After much thought, I deduced that the reason why I couldn’t comprehend “Ecko Rising” is that it’s just not well-written.
Ware herself is not a bad writer. I know that seems contradictory for me to say, so I’ll explain. She proves her talent with a creative premise, vivid prose, and a fast-paced narrative. Although she doesn’t explain many of the specialized terms that exist in her unique worlds, which is why “Ecko Rising” is confusing as heck. Characters in her story speak in bizarre dialects with weird slang and jargon that doesn’t get defined. Ware starts using these terms expecting you to somehow pick up their meaning based on their context, something that isn’t easy. A map at the front of the book gives you some frame of reference on places at least, but it doesn’t help that much.
Ware’s story focuses on Ecko, some sort of bionically enhanced assassin living in London. His gadgets allow him super strength, speed, and stealth that make him a force to be reckoned with. While on a mission, he blacks out and wakes up in a mysterious world with no technology, strange characters, monsters, and magic. As dark forces descend upon this peaceful land, it seems like Ecko is the only one who can save it. Is he dreaming? Is this place a virtual reality test for Ecko set up for someone’s amusement? Or scariest of all, is it real?
A testimonial on the back cover for “Ecko Rising” describes it as “The Matrix meets Game of Thrones…” which I think is a fairly accurate comparison. There’s this constant mind game going on with Ecko and the reader about whether his environment is a computer simulation just like “The Matrix.” And the fantasy elements combined with Ware’s multiple simultaneous storylines and intense sex scenes feel very much like “Game of Thrones.” Most of the erotic portions are titillating, however I could have done without the book’s messed up rape passage.
Ware’s locations that she constructs for “Ecko Rising” are fascinating places to inhabit, brought to life by descriptive language that is quite colorful, even if it has a tendency to be a bit repetitive. She always keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, intertwining several perspectives at the same time, which makes it easy to get through this 500-plus page novel. Unfortunately if you’re like me, you’ll reach the end, wondering what it was all about and why you stuck around.
After three busy “X-Men” films where Wolverine struggled to stand out, and one trainwreck solo picture, James Mangold’s “The Wolverine” finally does the character justice. Mangold not only satisfies us by providing depth to Wolverine’s familiar traits, but he surprises us by taking the character to captivating new places. Although his flick isn’t Oscar-worthy, the film is good enough to make its terrible predecessor “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” seem like a candidate for “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
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Regrettably, Robert Schwentke’s action comedy “RIPD” is not about the Rhode Island Police Department. That concept would have been much more engaging than the actual basis for this mediocre movie written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.
So what do the film’s titular initials stand for? They’re the name of a covert law enforcement unit called the “Rest In Peace Department,” comprised of cops who die in the line of duty. Disguised as harmless civilians, these officers walk the Earth again for a unique purpose: to capture rogue spirits and bring them to the other side.
The RIPD’s newest recruit is Nick (Ryan Reynolds) a cop gunned down during a drug bust. Since Nick has done some things he’s not proud of, he’s offered the position to make spiritual amends. Of course, this greenhorn is partnered with a grumpy veteran lawman from the 1800s named Roy (Jeff Bridges). Roy is a loner with zero interest in training a partner, which is just fine, because Nick thinks that he’s too good for Roy’s help anyway. After a series of humorous scuffles however, they realize that they’ll need to cooperate to stop a villain (Kevin Bacon) from bringing about the end of days.
Instead of being creative with an amusing premise, the filmmakers for “RIPD” disappoint by lazily ripping off “Men in Black” and “Ghostbusters.” The secret supernatural crime fighting organization piece as well as the mismatched partners is totally “MiB.” Roy is even Southern and hard to understand just like Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Plus, their misadventures in capturing ghosts and the apocalyptic showdown at the end borrow heavily from “Ghostbusters.” That said, it’s too bad that the humor in “RIPD” doesn’t come close to the hilarity of either picture.
Unfortunately this movie’s few attempts to innovate aren’t much better. Schwentke tries to place his camera at weird angles and twist it upside down during a couple chases, which only distracts you from the action. The slow-mo sequences look okay in 3D, but the only time the extra dimension feels truly worthwhile is when you wish it wouldn’t. Characters spitting chunks of food in your face isn’t particularly enjoyable or appetizing.
At least Jeff Bridges rewards viewers by playing gruff, grizzled cowboys like Roy with great gusto. The enthusiasm with which he portrays his character in “RIPD” is eerily similar to his jovial embodiment of the trigger-happy lawman Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s “True Grit.” Roy is entertaining because he’s more perverse than you’d expect, yet strangely sensitive. As a character he can be annoying though, due to how difficult he is to comprehend. His sometimes unintelligible voice sounds like Foghorn Leghorn with a frog in his throat.
Thankfully, Bridges has an odd chemistry with Reynolds that’s comedically decent. Although their quips won’t knock your socks off, they’ll still get you chuckling. At points however, “RIPD” seems confused about how far it should go with humor, choosing to stay on a safe PG-13 path in scenes where R-rated lines would be better. This hesitance made more sense after I learned from an actor who worked on the film, that it wasn’t supposed to be funny originally; the schtick was added during reshoots.
If there’s one good thing about this flick though, it’s that it’s short, well-paced and over quickly. Far from the best movie of the year, yet certainly not the worst. See it only if you have no other options at the theater.
My Grade: C-….as in Coming Close to Complete Crap.
Even when junk food has expired, sometimes it’s so freakin’ delicious that you can’t help eating it anyway. Certain sugary snacks have enough flavor, that they are totally worth the digestive consequences later. Dean Parisot’s action comedy “Red 2″ is exactly like one of those treats: an old Twinkie that you just can’t deny yourself.
Actually, a more apt analogy in this case, is probably an irresistible ancient Moon Pie, because there’s a scene in “Red 2″ where Marvin (John Malkovich) literally dusts one off for consumption. When someone gives him an incredulous look, he shrugs, saying “It was before they had expiration dates,” and then he chows down. As a viewer it’s easy feel a lot like Marvin with this film. You know you shouldn’t be ingesting it, yet the picture is entertaining enough that you gorge on it anyway, ignoring what should be a stale shtick.
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Don’t let the upbeat title of Stephen King’s “Joyland” fool you; his novel is no lighthearted tale of youthful exuberance. Although the book shares its name with a fictional amusement park where happy memories are made for children, the titular grounds in this paranormal, coming-of-age crime thriller have a much more tragic history for adults. Would you expect anything less from The Master of Horror?
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Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” is the BEST giant-robots-fighting-things flick of all time. Considering how low movies like “Transformers” and “Robot Jox” set the bar, that statement may sound like a backhanded compliment. It’s not though, because “Pacific Rim” is truly this genre’s highest caliber film to-date. The picture’s exemplary special effects, editing, camerawork, and implementation of 3D cooperate to create a miraculous, yet convincing world where humans pilot massive mechanical men to combat mammoth monsters.
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If you’re a fellow sci-fi buff, you might cringe when you learn that I never read any of Isaac Asimov’s “Robot” series. Comically, the closest I came, was seeing the 2004 film adaptation “I, Robot,” which I’ve heard is not particularly faithful to his work. And although the flick introduced me to Dr. Susan Calvin, a major character from Asimov’s books, I didn’t really remember Bridget Moynahan’s portrayal of her. Given this lack of familiarity with Asimov’s collection, I was essentially a blank slate when I started reading Mickey Zucker Reichert’s novel “I, Robot: To Protect.”
Reichert’s book is the first tale in a new trilogy inspired by Asimov’s original series. Luckily enough for me, it’s non-canon, so I wasn’t missing anything by jumping into this universe now. “I, Robot: To Protect” operates like a prequel, exploring Dr. Susan Calvin’s residency as a young psychiatrist at a cutting-edge Manhattan hospital. During her time there, Susan becomes an assistant to a mysterious research study, where patients are injected with experimental nanobots to help diagnose and treat mental illness. Her life is thrown into chaos however, after a previously non-violent patient suddenly commits an act of terrorism. Was the attack caused by the nanobots? And if it was, who’s programming them? More importantly, can Susan stop the next incident from happening before more innocent people are hurt?
At first, I was disappointed that a novel with “Robot” in the title, actually had little to do with mechanical men. Reichert reminded me of Asimov’s famous 3 Laws of Robotics and intrigued me with a robotic character that works with Susan at the hospital, but her yarn is more of a medical thriller than a sci-fi one. A large part of that angle probably has to do with Reichert’s own specialized knowledge that she contributes as a medical doctor. What’s shocked me about this narrative tact is how Reichert managed to make clinical terms and diagnoses fascinating to a layperson like me. I think that comes from the detailed and logical process that Reichert creates for Susan to assess and treat her patients.
As captivating as the medical portions of the novel are though, they have a difficult time sustaining momentum over the course of the story. I felt like I was reading an incredibly slow burn thriller, that seemed like it should pick up at any moment. But by the time I finally got the action and frenzied excitement that I was expecting, it was all over quicker than I wanted it to be. In that way, I thought that “I, Robot: To Protect” wrapped up too hastily, without proper explanation and closure.
Reichert’s smart, sassy characterization of the talented, headstrong Susan Calvin is amusing to read and the ease with which she makes a medical thriller accessible to the average person is truly impressive. However, for her next installment in this series, I hope that she’ll add more science fiction elements to the plot, along with a tighter pace, and a better developed final act.
I, Robot: To Protect is available now on Amazon and in stores from Roc Hardcover Publishing.
Actors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon wowed us with their Academy Award-winning screenplay for “The Descendants” in 2012. Now they’re poised to enthrall us again with their follow up: the summer coming-of-age flick “The Way, Way Back,” a passion project that they’ve been developing for years. Not only do they make their co-directorial debut with this film, but they co-write, co-produce, and co-star in it as well.
The Way, Way Back” focuses on Duncan (Liam James), a shy teenager forced on vacation with with his mom (Toni Collette), her mean boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). At first, Duncan is miserable because the adults ignore him and Steph ditches him. Everything changes though after he meets Sam Rockwell’s Owen, the wise-cracking manager at Water Wizz, a local waterpark. Owen gives Duncan a crash course in cool and much-needed mentorship to help completely turn the young man’s summer around.
I sat down with the pair recently for a roundtable interview, where we discussed why they chose Massachusetts for their setting, how the project developed, what influences from their own adolescence made it into the film, and why their time in prep school prepared them for show business. Below are highlights from our conversation.
Q: The original script, was it always based in Massachusetts?
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Nothing can keep P.I. Dan Chambeaux from his work, not even death itself. In author Kevin J. Anderson’s humorous horror-themed novel “Death Warmed Over,” the zombie private investigator rises from his grave to continue business as usual; well, the closest to usual that his business gets. Along with his partner, attorney Robin Deyer, Chambeaux, aka Shamble, serves citizens of paranormal New Orleans, recently redubbed The Big Uneasy. Their agency Chambeaux and Deyer provides much-needed legal and investigatory services for supernatural beings in the city’s Unnatural Quarter.
Surprisingly, Chambeaux and Deyer have more than enough cases to keep them busy. Shamble’s own untimely murder and the poisoning of his girlfriend-turned-ghost Sheyenne, are just two of the ones he’s tackling. His docket also includes a vampire harassed by humans, a wealthy werewolf’s messy divorce, a witch harmed by a spell book’s typo, a ghost locked in a creative property dispute with his heirs, and an unwanted relative haunting his family. Handling them all won’t be easy, because as Shamble says, “The cases don’t solve themselves.”
The funniest and most fascinating part of Anderson’s tale, is the complexity of his clients’ legal issues. Concrete concepts such as life, death, marriage, and property have become a lot less black and white now that ghosts, zombies, mummies, witches, and werewolves occupy the land of the living. As a result, Chambeaux and Deyer have to help their clients navigate difficult, often silly situations to forge legal precedents, which ensure equal rights for everyone. Who knew the afterlife could be so hilariously complicated?
Similar to film noir and pulp detective literature, the novel’s events are recounted in the first-person from Shamble’s perspective. This style flows well for the most part, but it does grow a bit tiresome because Shamble has a tendency to repeat himself when describing his appearance, habits, backstory, and romantic past with Sheyenne. Additionally, the type of humor that Anderson uses has difficulty finding the right audience. It’s too old for teens, although not quite mature enough for regular adults. Jokes are occasionally lewd and involve pop culture references to various movies and television shows in the horror genre, yet they don’t seem efficiently targeted toward a specific group of readers.
Another thing that “Death Warmed Over” struggles with in the beginning, is connecting all Shamble’s smaller cases in a meaningful way. For a portion of the story, Shamble’s work feels very procedural, and better suited to television’s episodic nature. Also, Anderson doesn’t do a great job of explaining how all of these supernatural beings started showing up in the first place. However, as he progresses, Anderson ties everything together effectively, so that he gives you a sense of closure, while still leaving room for future novels with this character.
Speaking of future novels, Anderson has the opportunity to build a beloved series with his next Dan Chambeaux adventure, but whether he will or not, still remains to be seen. To do that he’ll have to refine his approach to the character’s narration, hone his humor toward a more particular audience, and start connecting Chambeaux’s minor cases to the major plot earlier.