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March 19, 2010

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

CoverThe first film in the Twilight saga was a mixed bag. It was filmed before the series gathered the hype that it has, so the overall anticipation was dooming it to fail. It certainly didn’t help that the movie was not very well put together. The direction was questionable, the characters seemed to lack any joy whatsoever, and even though there were very minor deviations from the book (they ate in a diner instead of at home) the film was a literal adaptation of the novel. So much so that it lost a lot in the transition, which adds credence to the old rule, Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean it works on screen." It was also filmed in a blue hue that really made the whole thing cold and uncomfortable.

The only saving grace that could be gleaned was that the actors cast were absolutely perfect. Each actor accurately embodied their character. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (Bella and Edward respectively) are iconic as their literary companions, as are the actors who filled out the Cullens and now the Quileute. 

With New Moon, everything wrong with its predecessor appears to be fixed. The director was replaced by Chris Weitz (who also directed The Golden Compass, an imperfect but enjoyable film), and the story was treated with expert precision. Oh, and they got rid of that awful blue tint.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon explores Bella and Edward’s relationship by doing the only thing it can do, by having them break up. In doing so they learn just how necessary they are too each other as it literally pains them to be apart. Though Bella is devastated by her loss, she throws herself into the comfort of Jacob Black, a member of the local Indian tribe who is also not quite as he seems.  Unfortunately, Jacob has very strong feelings for Bella, but she can’t reciprocate as she is still very much in love with Edward and only views Jacob has a friend. 

In the end, a simple misunderstanding leads Edward to believe Bella dead and he feels he must end his own life. Bella, very much alive, has to travel half way around the world to try to save him before it’s too late.

Separating Bella and Edward is a necessary evil, as you can’t really understand how important their relationship is until they aren’t together anymore. Even though the story is entirely Bella-centric, visions of Edward still haunt her, especially whenever she does something that could involve her getting hurt (like riding motorcycles). Bella indulges her own daredevil self quite often just to get one of these visions.

Her relationship with Jacob is another strong point in the film and a major one for fans of the series.  Bella finds strong support in Jacob while dealing with the absence of Edward. Jacob, however, has such strong feelings for Bella, he is unable to keep them to himself. Jacob is certainly the Yin to Edwards Yang. He is literally hot (his body temp is 108 degrees), he doesn’t have much money, and he can turn into a very large werewolf. And while his tribe is at war with the vampires, they have an uneasy truce with the Cullens.

This time around, the translation from book to film is done with sculptor's hands. Changes were made to keep the film thematically interesting, but still staying true to the story and the characters. The actors are also given clearer direction, which makes for an overall much more enjoyable acting piece.

The book is a very tough read because it is all about Bella’s introspection and depression regarding Edward. This aspect weighed down the book heavily and thus it is the black sheep for the Twilight Series. Luckily, while the film does touch on this theme, it isn’t mired with the loathing and torture that the book is.

Also, while Jacob does have a big following among fans, he is very annoying in the books. He comes off as arrogant and whiny and just doesn’t know when to let go (an affliction all the characters share truthfully). The best thing about Taylor Lautner’s performance is that he imbued the role with such charm that he becomes a likable and sympathetic character whom you root for, regardless if you’re on “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.”

New Moon was adapted just about as perfectly as you can adapt that book into a film. If you’re one of the folks who have passed judgment on the series, the film will do little to change your mind.  And even though being familiar with the Twilight isn’t required, it’s necessary truly to understand the story.

If you’re a Twilight fan who is holding out until the throng of preening teenage girls have thinned before going to the theater, you do owe yourself a trip to the cinema as soon as you can. 

March 11, 2010

Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb

CoverI finished Renegade's Magic, the final novel of Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, and I was truly disappointed... not because the ending was less than satisfactory. Quite the contrary, I was disappointed because I knew it was the last book and I would have no more chance to read about these characters and their adventures.

This trilogy follows in first person perspective the character of Nevare Burvelle, a second son to a noble family who, because of his birth order, is destined to become a soldier for the crown. At first glance, and in truth, for the entire first book, this series appears to be a better-than-average coming of age story about a young man who goes off to the officers' academy to fulfill his destiny, armed with a mysterious magic that shapes his future and bodes of a life that will amount to more than those futures of his school comrades. In truth, much more is going on in this bookcover, events that will have bearing on the entire rest of the trilogy in a cascade of "chaos theory"-style repercussions. The first book Shaman's Crossing is an entertaining tale, but it is in the second novel, Forest Mage, that the story takes a very interesting turn.

The Soldier Son trilogy is unlikely to end up as required reading in high school English classes, but within the established fantasy genre structure this story challenges readers with plot and character twists. It tears down the very structure of expectations that it builds over the course of the first book, and dares readers to see its fantasy hero in a way, to which they are completely unaccustomed. As our hero's life and plans are derailed in unexpected ways, the reader is drawn into sympathizing with the character while at the same time decrying, "The story can't possibly continue like this!" CoverMore than once, the changes to Nevare's life and to the course of the storyline seem nearly intolerable, both for Nevare and for the reader, but just like the protagonist, readers also adjust to the new norms created by Hobb as the story unfolds. What is more remarkable though, is that in a story where magic has a mind of its own and goes even so far as to backseat the narrator in his own body, Hobb still puts the story in her protagonist's hands. Nevare drives this story at every turn, even when he is fighting the inevitable pull of the magic that has beset him.

The Soldier Son trilogy is a great pick for fantasy readers looking for a story that pushes beyond the norm while also remaining grounded in fantasy familiarities.






March 04, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar

CoverI’ve held off on publishing a review of the much-praised James Cameron blockbuster Avatar for a few reasons. One, I wasn’t really that excited to see it. Two, I wondered if there was anything else really to say (yes, I promise there is, keep reading). And three, I wanted to see what true longevity the event film of the decade had. With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and Avatar finding itself on the expanded best picture list, I thought it was time to take a deeper look at the phenomenon.

I live on the east coast and was one of the moviegoers ravaged by the blizzard in December that analysts predicted would damage the opening weekend totals for Avatar. We now know those predictors were wrong, and even though I braved the weather to get to my local cinema, it wasn’t to buy an Avatar ticket. When I walked in, I was astounded by the crowd. Not just because of the weather, but it’s rare to see a line through the lobby in the middle of the afternoon. Everyone was clutching a pair of 3D glasses, so I knew what they were waiting for. I gave in a week after Christmas.

What struck me first about the movie is the pure scope. At no point was I distracted by any of the visual effects, which appear in every frame on camera. Cameron’s team crafted a world so tangible that 3D really is the only way to experience it. Motion capture has come a long way in the last few years, even since Gollum, transferring all of the emotion and expression an actor brings to the screen seamlessly into the CG creations, the N’avi. Live-action performers blend effortlessly in with a world of green screen, strengthened by the talents of Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver and rising star Sam Worthington.

The story elements of Avatar are far from original, whether they know it or not borrowing heavily from a wide range of films from Dances With Wolves to Ferngully. The thing that struck me is not only is this a story we’ve seen before, this is a story we’ve seen before from James Cameron, with echoes of Aliens, Titanic, and the Abyss thrown in for good measure. Still, even though I never wondered what would happen next, I found myself wrought with emotion at all the right times, and cheering for the victory of our heroes. Socially relevant issues often sneak their way into blockbusters these days, and Cameron is no stranger—next time you watch Aliens, look for references to the Vietnam war and corporate interests. But, I was struck that such a leftist, pro-environment storyline had captured the attention of a conservative, increasingly unsustainable viewer majority.

Avatar wasn’t one of my favorite movies of 2009; it wouldn’t crack its way onto my top ten, at least. It isn’t even one of my favorite James Cameron movies. But, it is a movie I’ve recommended people take time out of their schedule to see theatrically, in what I was sure would be a long run. There’s little question that Avatar is the movie to beat Sunday night at the Oscars. The real question is, after creating such a pop culture juggernaut, what will Cameron bring us next?

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