Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: "Hannibal Rising"

One thing that Thomas Harris seems to have forgotten in his last two novels and screenplays about cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter is what made Lecter such a fascinating character in the first place - his personality and the performance of Anthony Hopkins.

It's much more chilling to hear the smooth, smiling Lecter talk matter-of-factly about eating someone's liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti than to actually watch him do it.

That was the problem with "Hannibal" and also with "Hannibal Rising," which tells the tale of the young Lecter and how he came to be Hannibal the cannibal.

It begins in Lithuania during World War II, when Hannibal is a small child. The Nazis and the Russian army clash on his family's land, resulting in the death of his parents and leaving Hannibal to fend for himself and his younger sister. When a band of rogue locals who have been denied entry to the SS come calling at the house where Lecter and his sister are hiding, things get worse - much worse.

We're then introduced to the teenage Hannibal, who escapes from the orphanage that used to be his family's home, sneaks across the Soviet border and winds up with an aunt by marriage who lives in Paris. Lecter starts a new life and begins medical school, but he hasn't forgotten the horrors of the war, seeing the men who tormented him in his dreams every night.

"Hannibal Rising" is a far superior movie to "Hannibal," but it still doesn't stack up to either "Red Dragon" or "Silence of the Lambs." This is a brutal vision of the young Lecter, far from the suave mastermind of his later years, though he does occasionally show the tendency toward the killer he'll later become (the last scene in the film, in which the violence isn't shown, is perhaps the most Lecter-ish moment.)

Gaspard Ulliel steps into some big shoes taking on the role of Lecter, and handles it well. While he portrays a younger, more brash and less scheming Lecter, we do see him develop the cold charm and show flashes of Hopkins' famous portrayal. Ultimately, though, he's stuck in what is more or less a gory revenge tale. While it shows us Lecter's origins, it offers little insight into the character once he has that revenge. To me, the more interesting tale may be the transformation from the angry young man bent on revenge to the cold habitual killer of "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs," and it might offer more of those things which make "Silence of the Lambs" a creepier film.

"Hannibal Rising" is an enjoyable enough revenge tale, but in a couple of years when I'm flipping channels and see it on TV, I'm not likely to stop and continue watching the way I will when I see "Silence of the Lambs."

Get the "Hannibal Rising" DVD.

Get the novel.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," by J.K. Rowling

Note: This review is as spoiler-free as I could possibly make it, but if you don't want any clue whatsoever about Harry's fate, don't read the last paragraph.

I opened my copy of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" feeling equal amounts of anticipation and regret. Here, finally, was the conclusion of the seven-book cycle (conclusion being something that most fantasy series these days never seem to reach), the answers to all the questions, the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. On the other hand, I also knew it was the end of Harry's story.

The book starts with a bang. More than any other book in the series, the action begins immediately and never lets up. By page 50, there's carnage in what becomes a dark and bloody chapter of the saga. It almost had to be that way. Though we've never truly seen Voldemort and the Death Eaters in action, we knew they would be vicious, blackhearted and evil. They live up to their reputation here.

As we learned in "The Half-Blood Prince," Harry is not going back to Hogwarts for the new year. He's about to turn 17, legally able to use magic outside school grounds, and he's going to collect Voldemort's horcruxes, the pieces of his soul that he's split up and hidden, and destroy them. Hermione and Ron, of course, are going with him, despite his protests. The downside of turning 17 is that the spell protecting Harry will fail and Voldemort will be able to find him, so the Order of the Phoenix has to spirit him away from the Dursley's home and hide him in a safe house, and that's where things start to go wrong.

While the Order of the Phoenix tries to protect Harry, Voldemort and the Death Eaters are maneuvering to take over the Ministry of Magic, implement their anti-Muggle policies and, of course, declare Harry an outlaw. Harry and his friends go on the run on a wild magical journey that leads them to new places and forces them to take a hard look at themselves and those that are closest to them.

As promised by Rowling, people die and people change - or at least our perception of those people does. Actions both heroic and not-so-heroic come from unexpected sources, and by the end of the book nearly every character has undergone some sort of transformation.

I quibble with one point late in the book, which I won't reveal here so as not to spoil it for those who haven't finished yet, but I was left with mixed feelings. While a powerful scene, ultimately, I felt that Rowling may have cheated a bit. But it wasn't enough to ruin the book for me.

SPOILER ALERT: There are clues to Harry's fate in the next paragraph. If you don't want to know, don't read it. You've been warned.

"The Deathly Hallows" is a fitting ending for the wizard who is no longer a boy in this book. And though fans around the world will protest, wanting to read more about Harry, it should be an ending. Like all true heroes, Harry has played his part in the grand story and deserves some peace. No future story could match up to the one told in these seven books, and would only cheapen what Rowling has accomplished with this story.

Read my thoughts on the ending of Harry Potter.

Random thoughts on the end of Harry Potter

It's been a long, fun ride since that day, eight years or so ago, when I first picked up "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The religious fanatics were raving about how it would ruin society and teach our children witchcraft, and I figured that anything that ticked them off that much couldn't be all bad. That was enough to make me pick it up, but, of course, it took much more to make me follow it through seven books.

I liked the first two books because they were fun. They contained a sense of wonder that I hadn't encountered in books in a while. I reveled in Rowling's world and its inhabitants. Then, with "Prisoner of Azkaban," something else began to happen. Instead of just being fun and fascinating, the books began to transform into a more serious story. Getting progressively darker, and with the exception of "Goblet of Fire" which I still believe is the weakest link in the series, progressively better. It transformed from a children's tale into a true fantasy epic.

I know there are "serious fantasy fans" out there rolling their eyes at that statement. I know because I've talked to them. Snobbish types who look down their nose and sniff at Harry Potter because it was, at least initially, written for children and because it was a commercial success. (Never mind that most of the literary world looks down their noses and sniffs at those same people for reading fantasy and anything that bolsters the reputation and success of the genre should be hailed as a good thing.)

I even had a guy go through the trouble of tracking me down to insult me after a quote from one of my reviews appeared on the cover of a Jim Butcher book referencing Harry Potter. This truly charming individual informed me that comparing Harry Potter to any book for adults was an insult to the author of the adult book. As a writer myself, I'll take a piece of that insult. I'm sure Butcher would, too.

He went on to offer a long list of books that I should read to "educate" myself on fantasy before writing any more reviews about a genre I know nothing about. As a 20-plus year reader of fantasy, I'd read most of the books on the list, and I'd still put the seven Potter books right there with most of them.

Many people have discussed in recent weeks how Harry Potter will be seen by future generations and whether or not it will endure. I believe that it will. The teenagers who are obsessed with Harry Potter now will want their future children to experience it, too, just as I can't wait for the day my son is ready to take a stroll through Middle-earth or Narnia, the places I explored as a kid - and, yes, now I'll add Hogwarts to that list.

More importantly, I hope that people will always seek out a good story, and putting aside the massive commercial success and hype around the books, that's what Rowling has delivered - a good story that shows us both the best and the worst of human nature, the triumph of spirit and the pangs of loss. It's with those mingled feelings that millions of readers finished the final page and closed the cover of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the loss at knowing this could be the last time they walk the halls of Hogwarts, but the triumph and satisfaction of having enjoyed one of the best fantasy stories of our time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review: "Fragile Things" by Neil Gaiman

It's no surprise that a guy who made his name in the comics world would excel in the short form, and for the most part, his latest short story collection, "Fragile Things" ($26.95, William Morrow), will not disappoint.

Through the course of the stories, Gaiman weaves fairy tale, myth, legend and tributes to writers he idolizes into stories that range from charming to strange to creepy.

The best story here is a tip of the hat to Ray Bradbury, "October in the Chair," which features personifications of the seasons of the month swapping stories at a gathering. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the ending of the story is incredibly reminiscent of Bradbury and his stories that made readers think and use their imaginations. It wouldn't have been out of place in Bradbury's "The October Country."

Other influences come through on "A Study in Emerald," which reads like a blend of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and the observant reader will note references to other writers and works sprinkled liberally throughout the book.

The best stories in "Fragile Things," as with much of Gaiman's work, are those that lean more toward the fantastic and surreal. The story in "October in the Chair," for example is much more disturbing than the stab he takes at a more grisly brand of horror in "Feeders and Eaters."

Of great interest to fans will be the return of Shadow from "American Gods" in the novella "The Monarch of the Glens," which offers a different take on "Beowulf" and also hints that perhaps there's more in store for Shadow in the future.

Gaiman also sprinkles bits of poetry here and there throughout the book, which for the most part, you can skip. A poet he's not, but there is a certain poetry in his stories when they're at their best. Much like his idol Bradbury, Gaiman is at his best when he's at his strangest. The tales that make you think, the stories that open themselves to your own interpretation are the ones you'll remember.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Review: "Happy Feet"

I have a two-year-old that loves penguins, so if there's an animated movie with penguins, we're probably seeing it at some point. I happen to like animated movies myself, so I'm not that opposed. Except when we run into one like this.

Mumble, voiced by Elijah Wood, is an emperor penguin that can't sing - the only one, apparently. But he can dance. His lack of vocal ability makes him an outcast, and he's shunned because of his love of dancing. The elder penguins even blame the lack of fish on Mumble's dancing. Of course, we know that's actually caused by overfishing by humans, and of course, Mumble is the one that will discover that and set things right because that's how these kinds of movies work.

The problem is, the environmental message in the second half of the movie falls flat because the filmmakers fail to make me care about their animated penguins in the first half of the movie. There are pretty pictures. There are some funny gags and some fun moments during the singing, but I'm just not invested.

OK, so it's a cartoon, and adults are not really supposed to have an emotional investment, but I should at least care about what happens to Mumble, and I don't.

My son liked the singing and dancing penguins, and an action sequence where they're chased by a leopard seal, but even he lost interest when Mumble's out on his own trying to save the world. That whole storyline just seems to drag and drag the movie down with it. While I understand and applaud the filmmakers trying to make an environmental statement, they might have been better served to deliver the fluffy kids' movie about being yourself that "Happy Feet" started as.

Get "Happy Feet."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

When you're watching a foreign movie, there's an easy way to tell if it's really good. At some point during the movie, you forget that it's subtitled. That happened to me while watching "Pan's Labyrinth" over the weekend. At the risk of sounding like the redneck I am, I'll admit that I hate subtitles. But somewhere during the final scenes, I suddenly realized again that the movie had them. I had been completely absorbed in the world presented by Guillermo del Toro.

The movie revolves around a young girl named Ofelia who travels to Spain in 1944 with her pregnant mother, who is in a seemingly unhappy marriage to Capt. Vidal, a vicious and merciless officer in the Spanish Army. Shortly after her arrival, she begins to see fairies who eventually lead her to a faun who tells her she's the daughter of the king of the underworld. The faun assigns her tasks that must be completed before she can take her rightful place. While trying to complete those tasks, she must also deal with her mother's worsening condition and the war between her stepfather's men and the rebels in the mountains.

At heart the movie is a fairy tale, but it's definitely not for kids. There is, of course, a lot of violence and some very dark themes that run through the movie, though, to me, the violence was not as graphic as some reviews have suggested.

When Ofelia is in the fairy worlds, the movie is absolutely beautiful. The creatures she encounters during her challenges are both whimsical and sinister at the same time. The fantasy land sequences play almost like some warped and dangerous version of "Alice in Wonderland." It's a world that I'd like to spend more time in, and if I have one complaint about the movie, it would be that I would have liked to explore the fantasy side of the film more. Some of those scenes, like the one in the hall of the Pale Man, went by far too quickly for me and left me wanting to go back.

I don't mean to say that the "real world" part of the movie was at all weak. It was equally absorbing story-wise and probably could have stood on its own without the supernatural elements. But I still longed for the visual treats and wonder of the fantasy world.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is an impressive achievement for del Toro, so much so that "The Devil's Backbone" has just moved to the top of my "to see" list.

Get "Pan's Labyrinth."

Get the two disc version.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review: "Greywalker" by Kat Richardson

Seattle private investigator Harper Blaine is having a rough time in Kat Richardson's debut "Greywalker" ($14, Roc).

She was finishing what she expected to be a routine case by confronting the perpetrator of a petty fraud. Things go awry when the suspect goes crazy and beats her to death. For two minutes, Harper is officially dead before being revived by paramedics, and then things get weird. Her experience has given her the strange abilities of a greywalker, someone who is able to see ghosts and even cross over into their world.

Shortly after being released from the hospital, she's back on the job working two cases. One, finding the son of a rich socialite who has disappeared from college. The other, finding a parlor organ for a mysterious client. Both prove to be much more than Harper could have ever planned for.

I've become quite the fan of these supernatural detective stories over the past few years. The best ones get the action started early and keep it fun. That's perhaps the only problem with Richardson's debut. A lot of time is spent trying to explain Harper's abilities and showing her learning to use them, and in the early going it gets bogged down a little in the technicalities. Most folks who are going to pick up this book will be willing to accept her abilities and learn as they go along instead of having them explained.

About halfway through the book, when Harper finds her missing person, business picks up and from there the book moves at a much faster clip and heads in a direction that fans will be much more familiar with.

Richardson's story is well done and enjoyable, though I have to admit that I had a bit more trouble identifying with Harper than similar characters in other authors' work. I do like the fact that Richardson's heroine doesn't have to jump in bed with every supernatural character that walks through the door, as often happens in these tales.

"Greywalker" is an intriguing debut, and I'll be very interested to see what Richardson does with the next installment now that the groundwork is done.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Review: "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny"

I stumbled across Tenacious D years ago, after stumbling into the house late one night and flipping on HBO. I remember laughing my ass off, thinking "it's a shame these guys will never go anywhere." I guess it shows how much I know.

So now that Jack Black is in demand, it's nice to see that he hasn't forgotten the people who were watching him on HBO at two in the morning all those years ago. He and Kyle Gass released a record a few years back under the Tenacious D moniker, and now comes the movie.

The movie covers the fictional beginnings of the band and a quest to find an ancient pick made out of the devil's tooth that has supposedly made many of the world's greatest guitarists who they are. If they get the pick, they're almost assured of greatness.

Of course, the plot really doesn't matter. It's Jack Black's manic energy and over-the-top personality that makes the movie. He's one of the few actors in Hollywood that can be consistently entertaining, even in a lousy movie (which this one isn't.) Gass has always been the straight, quiet guy of the duo, but we get to see a little more of him in the early going, and he has some moments as a cocky, fake rock god.

There are also some nice cameos sprinkled throughout the show, with Meat Loaf starring as Jack's father and Ronnie James Dio jumping out of a poster on his door to sing a song that urges him to follow his dreams. Tim Robbins shows up as a creepy, bumbling villain who had his leg ruined while trying to steal the pick, and of course, Dave Grohl reprises the role of Satan.

The movie is as much a musical as a film, and it works on both levels. No, it's not great cinema, but did you expect it to be? I laughed often, and I enjoyed the corny songs, and that's really all I wanted. Long live the D.

Get "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny."

Friday, July 06, 2007

Review: "All Together Dead" by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series continues down a darker road in the latest installment, "All Together Dead" ($24.95, Ace).

For those unfamiliar with the series, the main character Sookie Stackhouse is a no-nonsense northern Louisiana girl who also happens to be a telepath. She's caught the attention of the vampires, who have recently gone public about their existence, and they continue to call on her services. This time, she's been hired by Sophie-Anne Leclerq, the vampire queen of Louisiana, to travel to what amounts to a vampire convention in a Chicago suburb so that she can scan the minds of other humans and give the queen an edge.

Sophie-Anne, still reeling from the blow of Hurricane Katrina, is scheduled to face trial in the death of her husband, the king of Arkansas. When they arrive at the pyramid-themed vampire hotel, though, vamps begin dropping like flies all around them, and Sophie finds herself caught up in a series of vampiric power plays. Then, of course, there's the ever-present threat of the Fellowship of the Sun, a group of radical humans who want to destroy the vamps.

Harris' series began as a fun romp through a world filled with vampires and good ole boys. With each installment, though, it's gotten slightly darker. While there's still plenty of fun and humor in the early-going here, the final third of the book becomes pretty disturbing. The post-Katrina pall hanging over the book and the climactic scenes which are disturbingly familiar in the age of terrorism add to the bleak ending which will leave readers unsure whether they still like many of the characters, Sookie included, as much as they did before.

While fans may miss the fun, flippant side of the series a little, "All Together Dead" offers a bigger punch in the gut and asks some tougher questions of us than previous installments. It's a more grown-up offering with a less rosy outlook on humanity.

Read my review of Charlaine Harris' "Definitely Dead."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Review: "Eragon"

The advances in fantasy movies in recent years have been amazing. I remember sitting through a lot of truly awful fantasy films over the years, longing to find one like Peter Jackson's adaptations of "The Lord of the Rings" or some of the "Harry Potter" adaptations. The technology now has gotten so good that even a mediocre fantasy film can be impressive.

It's unusual for me to not have read a book before I see the movie, but for some reason, I just never got around to picking up "Eragon." I had a vague notion of the plot, but didn't really know what I was getting. The film starts well enough. Some might fault it for the typical "farmboy with hidden greatness" plot, but it's a staple of the fantasy genre and still very viable when done correctly.

Visually, the movie is very good, even if it borrows more than a few camera shots and digital sets from "The Lord of the Rings." The dragon Saphira looks great both on the ground and in flight, and the climactic aerial battle between Eragon and Saphira and the Shade Durza and his nightmare creation is stunning.

The cast also does a good job with what they have to work with. Ed Speleers is appropriately innocent and brash as Eragon, John Malkovich seems to be having fun as the evil King Galbatorix and Jeremy Irons brings some gravity to Eragon's mentor Brom. The problem they have is that toward the end of the movie, the dialogue devolves into a series of clich├ęs. Combined with the digital backdrops and camera shots that should have Jackson on the phone with his lawyers, it really took me out of the flow of the movie because I'd laugh a little every time I saw one.

"Eragon" isn't a bad movie, but it isn't a great one, either. It has a lot of nice eye candy, which distracts from a mediocre script. A common complaint I see from fans of Christopher Paolini's books is that the script takes much of the depth of the story away. I can't say either way since I haven't read the book, but I can say the movie certainly doesn't compel me to run out and get a copy of the book.

"Eragon" is a fun way to pass an hour and a half, but when the credits roll, it's not one of those recent fantasy movies that leave you thinking, "wow, I can't wait to see that again."

Get "Eragon."

Get the Special Edition.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Review: "The Children of Hurin" by J.R.R. Tolkien

I always approach posthumous works with more than a little skepticism, but there are just times when I can't resist checking them out. One such time is when it's a "new" work from J.R.R. Tolkien. "The Children of Hurin" ($26, Houghton-Mifflin) was compiled from a variety of Tolkien sources and stories by his son Christopher, and while it's not "The Hobbit" or "The Lord of the Rings," it's still an entertaining tale.

The warrior lord Hurin stands with the elves against the dark lord Morgoth and is taken captive, cursed to watch the doom of his children, Turin and Nienor, as they battle the advancing forces of Morgoth that seek to plunge the world into darkness.

Don't expect "The Hobbit" or "The Lord of the Rings" from this book. While those tales meandered at a leisurely stroll taking detours and admiring the scenery, this one moves at breakneck pace from action to action. This is more like Tolkien's attempt at a Shakespearean tragedy.

There are times when "The Children of Hurin" seems no more than an outline of a story that Tolkien had been planning and reads as a historical report of the action rather than a story. There are moments of great detail, such as Turin's battle with the dragon Glaurung, and other times where events happen so quickly that they don't have the full impact that they should.

Some have suggested that "The Children of Hurin" is an attempt by Christopher Tolkien to cash in on his father's legacy, and reading the book, I don't believe that. I do think it was an honest attempt to give fans a longed-for tale equal to his father's best. Unfortunately, it falls a bit short.

That said, the book is certainly worth reading for Tolkien fans. The valiant, yet troubled Turin is an interesting character with the potential to have been one of Tolkien's greatest with some development. The story should also please fans who would like to know more about the history of Middle-earth, but find wading through "The Silmarillion" tough going. And, of course, there are the gorgeous illustrations by Alan Lee. It's a good book, but ultimately it is what it is - an unfinished tale.

Get "The Children of Hurin."

Get the Deluxe Edition.

Review: "The Departed"

Though "Goodfellas" is one of my favorite movies, I've been underwhelmed by most of Martin Scorsese's more recent movies. That's why I was pleased to see him return to the kind of gritty, and yes occasionally gory, movies that have produced some of his best work.

"The Departed" features Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio as double-agent police officers playing against each other. DiCaprio tries to take down Irish crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) as an undercover member of his crew, while Damon is actually working for Costello and feeding him information as the officer officially assigned to take him down. Costello has his own secrets, but those I won't reveal.

Initially, the film is a bit confusing simply because DiCaprio and Damon are so similar, and I found myself playing a game of which is which (perhaps fans of the two won't have that problem). After I got it all sorted out, though, the movie became an enjoyable game of cat and mouse with some good performances among the all-star cast.

While the movie focuses on Damon and DiCaprio, the real star is Nicholson. He plays Costello flamboyantly over the top, and it's great fun watching him chew up the scenery. It's perhaps his most entertaining role since "The Shining." Even though I'm not a fan, I also enjoyed seeing Alec Baldwin ham it up as Damon's somewhat bumbling boss.

The film is apparently an adaptation of the Hong Kong movie "Infernal Affairs." Having never seen it, I can't make the comparison. All I can say is that this one feels like a Scorsese piece from top to bottom.

Ultimately, "The Departed" is what Scorsese does best. It's at times hilariously funny and at times brutally violent. Much like real life, the good guys don't always win, and the things that happen don't have to "make sense." It's his best film, at least since "Casino" and possibly since "Goodfellas."

Get "The Departed."

Get "The Departed" special edition.