Archive for July 2013

Friday Flicks: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


A review of a book to film adaptation.

The Millennium Trilogy by late Swedish author Steig Larsson proved to be a world-wide phenomenon. With the launch of the first novel in the international bestselling trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, readers fell in love with the misfit protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, and the novel's gritty, dark content. 

A Swedish film adaptation soon followed, and it was only a matter of time before American filmmaker David Fincher set out to leave his mark on the novel. Fincher, who directed the dark hits Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc., was a perfect match for the difficult subject matter that the novel contained. In the film, Rooney Mara brings a vulnerable side to the dark character, Salander. 

The film follows recently disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, played here by Daniel Craig, as he attempts to rebuild his life. He is called upon by Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, years ago. As Blomkvist begins to investigate, he discovers the gloomy past and unfortunate events that seem to have plagued the Vanger family. Essentially a locked room mystery, Blomkvist knows that Harriet's killer had to be a member of the family, as they were the only people on the family's island on that day. 

This could have been a straight forward thriller, but the addition of the fascinating Lisbeth Salander elevates the story to another level. Salander is a ward of the state, who has a knack for anything technology related. On the outside, she appears as a kind of goth punk outcast, but her hacking skills have afforded her a comfortable career as an investigator. It is these skills that lead her to assist Blomkvist in his investigation.

The content of both the film and the novel is extremely dark and often uncomfortably graphic. There are scenes of great violence, including rape, and detailed portrayals of torture. Despite these disturbing moments, there is a heart to both Blomkvist and Salander that makes this a compulsively watchable movie. The adaptation stays true to the spirit of the novel while still standing alone as a commendable piece of filmmaking. This a a thrilling adult movie that brings the fantastic novel to life.

Have you read the novel or seen the movie? If so, what did you think of it? What book adaptations would you like to see as a future Friday Flicks post?

Friday Flicks: Stardust

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A review of a book to film adaptation. 

Stardust, the novel by Neil Gaiman, told the tale of a young man and his search to find a falling star. The "grown-up fairytale" had a very cinematic scale, so it was a natural choice for a film adaptation. The film opens with the authoritative narration of Sir Ian McKellen, explaining the history of the world and the strange city of Wall. The city is a fairly normal, English town, separated from the mysteries of the rest of the world by a large wall. When reading the book, I imagined a tall and expansive structure, but the film version leaves a bit to be desired. When our protagonist, Tristan, sets out the find a fallen star for his crush Victoria, he is initially unable to pass the elderly guard at the only exit in the structure. Looking at the wall, it seemed a bit unbelievable that the young man couldn't find another way over the wall, but this is a fantasy story, so I guess you have to suspend your disbelief.

Despite this small gripe, the film really is great to look at. I would compare it to something slightly brighter than a Tim Burton movie, while still containing enough dark elements to keep a real sense of danger. When Tristan arrives at the site of the fallen star, he does not see the large rock that he expected. Instead, he learns that the star is actually a girl, played here by Clair Danes. As he begins to take the reluctant star back to Wall, he realizes that he is not the only one who wants the star.

The king of the world outside of Wall, played by Peter O'Toole, is dying. His son's, there are seven of them, must kill each other off until there is only one remaining heir to the throne. The heir must also retrieve the fallen star, in order to take the throne. Additionally, there are three old witches, led by Michelle Pfeiffer, who seek the heart of the star to restore their youth. As Tristan navigates his way home, he is forced to face these characters, and make the transition from boy to man, in the process.

If all of this seems a bit confusing, do not fret. The filmmakers do a much better job than I have of relaying this complex story. While there are several changes from the book, none are so great that the magic of the story is decreased. When it is boiled down to its bones, this is the story of a young man, forced to grow up and discover the true meaning of love. With the fantastic story combined with a strong ensemble of actors, I would definitely recommend both the book and film to anyone who is a fan of fairytales, and coming of age stories.

Have you seen this movie or read this book? If so, how do you think the two compare?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


Over the course of his career, author Neil Gaiman has delighted readers with his storytelling abilities. His almost childlike sensibilities have allowed him to reach audiences through various mediums, spanning from comic books to more traditional children and adult literature. With his latest adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he explores a dark story with enough whimsy and emotion to attract readers of all tastes.

The novel begins with a forty something year old man returning to the small English town where he grew up. His old home has long been demolished, but he is drawn instead to a dilapidated farmhouse at the end of the lane. When he arrives there, he begins to reflect on his childhood and the dark events that occurred at the place.

He was only seven years old when it began. A quiet boy, more at home with his nose in a book than playing with other children, he was an outcast within his own family. We learn that the family is struggling with money. They decide to move him from his own room to bunk with his sister, leaving an empty bed to rent out. With the arrival of the renter, a mysterious opal miner, dark events begin to occur.

The boy meets the three generations of Hempstock women who run the farm at the end of the lane. Lettie Hempstock, who claims to have been eleven years old for a very long time, immediately entrances the boy with her enchanting way with words and conviction that the pond that rests at the very end of the lane is actually an ocean. She agrees to allow him to tag along as she takes a trip to an odd place that lies somewhere between this world and the next. Upon their return from the strange place, an evil is released. Following the untimely death of the mysterious opal miner, this evil takes the form of a menacing nanny, who takes up residence at the boy's home. With the help of the Hempstock women, the boy must vanquish the evil while learning the true meaning of sacrifice.

Neil Gaiman is known for his delightfully dark, whimsical fairytales. This novel is no exception. At its heart, this is a coming of age story that beautifully depicts the fun, confusion, magic, and sacrifice of growing up. Gaiman makes these sometimes difficult realities more accessible through his imaginative characters, situations, and pacing. The novel is completely engrossing, begging to be read in a single sitting. With an ending that is both poignant and satisfying, readers of all ages should definitely follow Gaiman to the end of the lane.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 29, book 29)

Friday Flicks: Up In The Air

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A review of a book to film adaptation. 

In the 2009 film, Up In The Air, George Clooney portrays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who travels across the U.S. to fire people. Basically, his corporation sends him in to dismiss employees from their job, so that the employer doesn't have to. As part of his career, Ryan is constantly on the road, or more accurately, in the air for a large portion of his year. He is not close to his family, has a modest apartment that he rarely sleeps at, and has made it his personal goal to ten million frequent flyer miles.

His simple life is threatened when his employer hires an enthusiastic, young recruit, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to help cut costs. As part of her plan, Natalie wants to fire people through video conference calls, making people like Ryan obsolete. Fearful that this new thinking will bring an end to his way of life, Ryan argues that Natalie is too inexperienced to fire people, and could never understand what he does on a daily basis. To his annoyance, Ryan's boss agrees that Natalie is inexperienced and tasks Ryan with mentoring her as she accompanies him on his travels.

As they begin their travels, we gain a deeper insight into each of the character's personal lives. Through their mismatched personalities and experiences, the two begin to form an understanding of each other. Along the way, Ryan encounters the female equivalent of himself, played by Vera Farmiga, who he quickly falls for. The film then follows Ryan as he tries to find a life for himself outside of an airport, and discover who he truly is.

Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, Up In The Air is one of those rare movies that actually improves upon the source material. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno), the film consistently entertains while providing thought provoking commentary on economics and the state of American's social lives. While the novel was mainly made of anecdotes about Ryan's experiences, there is a much stronger narrative arch to the film that all leads to a believable conclusion. Equally funny and intelligent, Up In The Air is a timely film that I would definitely recommend.

Have you seen this film or read the book on which it is based? If so, how do you think the two compare? Which other film adaptations would you like to see reviewed?

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan


Dr. Kate Philo is on an arctic expedition to discover frozen lifeforms. She works for a team of scientists who study cell reanimation. Basically, they have the technology to bring small frozen lifeforms, mostly krill, back to life. As with all science, the process is not full proof. In fact, the creatures come to life for only a short period of time before dying again for good. But the young doctor is optimistic at the promises of the project. So much so that she gave up her university position, which she really loved, to take on the expedition full time. One day the team, sailing under the banner of the Carthage Institute, comes across an unusual find. They come upon a giant "candidate berg" that has the largest carbon signature ever recorded. As they begin digging into the berg, they expect to find some sort of sea creature like a seal. But as the divers dig deeper into the ice, they see something poking out that they never expected to find . . . a human hand.

To say journalist Daniel Dixon is ambitious would be an understatement. He has spent his career searching for that one high-profile story to propel him to the top of his field. It is no wonder then that he agreed to be the sole journalist to cover the Carthage Institute. He has seen the reanimation of krill with his own eyes, and was aboard the ship when the team, led by the beautiful Dr. Kate Philo, discovered the frozen remains of a human man. Now the leader of the institute, Dr. Erastus Carthage, has called upon Dixon to be the sole reporter, as the institute, recently renamed the Lazarus Project, attempts to reanimate their largest subject to date. But Daniel Dixon has an ulterior motive. Yes, being the sole reporter for the historic attempt to bring a man back to life will bring his writing international exposure, but Daniel believes there is more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, he is certain that the Lazarus Project is nothing more that an elaborate hoax, meant to bring fortune and political power to its founder.

Dr. Erastus Carthage is not a nice man. As the head of his privately funded institute and as the leading scientist on cell reanimation, he has become accustom to getting his way, no matter what. With the discovery of a frozen human, he prepares himself for the windfall that is sure to come when he brings the man back to life. But he knows this will not be easy. The project has it's fair share of detractors. Many protest the project, claiming that God and only God has the power to revive human life. Carthage is certain of his science and the powerful possibilities that reanimation of human life could present. He is aware of the various thoughts for and against his work and will stop at nothing to see his work through.

In The Curiosity, author Stephen P. Kiernan masterfully blends science, morality, and romance into a stunning novel. Each chapter is told from the perspective of either Dr. Kate Philo, Daniel Dixon, or Dr. Erastus Carthage, allowing the reader to delve deeper into the motivations of each character and their reactions to the actions of the others. Kiernan explores the issue of morality in science and the lengths that people are willing to go to fulfill their ambitions. Despite the exploration of some potentially controversial themes, Kiernan never pushes an agenda upon the reader, opting instead to let the characters and events speak for themselves.

The novel is hard to place within one genre, reading as a kind of cross between At The Mountains Of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, Dan Brown's Deception Point, and Eowyn Ivey's Snow Child.  The novel presents a strong romantic thread to it's plot, about halfway through. Fortunately, Kiernan devotes as much effort to building a believable romance as he does in convincing us that reanimation could actually occur. In the end, The Curiosity is a masterful novel, equally entertaining and heartbreaking. It will force you to reevaluate some of your own beliefs while never leading you to a definitive answer. In the end, readers are sure to devour this thought provoking novel and still be thinking about it for weeks to come.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 28, book 28)

Friday Flicks: World War Z

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A review of a book to film adaptation.

In his novel, World War Z, author Max Brooks created a telling of a zombie infested, post-apocalyptic world. Rather than a traditional narrative, Brooks told his tale as a collection of individual recollections of the ten-year war against zombies. When the film adaptation of the bestselling book was announced, I was excited to see the book brought to life, but wondered if such an adaptation was even possible. How could the filmmakers adapt a book with so many characters and such a large scope.

The answer . . . they don't. Rather than attempt to chorale Brooks's writing into the constraints of a film, the filmmakers use little more than the title and the idea of a zombie apocalypse in this "adaptation". With Brad Pitt playing a former UN employee who is called to jump back into his old lifestyle for the sake of his family, the filmmakers wisely choose to focus on a central character and his struggle to survive. I guess when you have Brad Pitt starring in your movie, you better use him!

The film opens as Pitt, accompanied by his wife(Mireille Enos), prepares to drive his daughters to school. On this drive, the family witnesses the zombie outbreak firsthand, narrowly escaping the danger of the streets. Desperate to safeguard his family from the attacks, he calls upon his old friend at the United Nations, and agrees to help search for the origin of the outbreak in exchange for his family's asylum. They are then flown to an ocean based command center, where Pitt learns of the apparent virus that causes people to turn to zombies. As the film progresses, we follow Pitt as he visits numerous places around the world, each affected by the outbreak.

World War Z is directed by Marc Forester (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace), who brings a fast pace and edgy tone to the story. It is very difficult to make a zombie seem threatening. Indeed, there were moments in this film where the zombies are almost laughable. But the filmmakers deftly find a way around that. By allowing the actors to play their characters straight and develop genuine emotional stakes, the threat of zombies becomes more urgent and frightening.

Before its release, World War Z was mired in production setbacks that included a massive rewrite and reshoot of it's third act. The result is an ending that foregoes the normal summer blockbuster conclusion of intense action and special effects. Rather, the film ends with an intimate, suspense laden scene that intelligently concludes the movie, while artfully and organically leaving the possibility for a sequel. Despite a complete departure from the source material, World War Z manages to remain smart, intriguing, and most importantly, entertaining.

Have you seen this film or read the book on which it is based? How do you think the two compare? What other film adaptations would you like to see reviewed?

Bad Blood by John Sandford

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A small Minnesota town is shocked when local high school football star, Bobby Tripp, is arrested for the brutal murder of farmer Jacob Flood. Immediately, this opening scene, in which we read the details of Tripp killing Flood, strays from John Sandford's usual practice of hiding the identity of the killer. Knowing Tripp's identity, I was certain that this would be a story that was much different from any of the previous installments in this series.  Sure enough, Tripp is found the next day, dead in his jail cell from an apparent suicide. Upon further investigation, it is revealed that Tripp's death was involuntary which could mean only one thing. . . murder.

Enter Virgil Flowers. He probably better resembles an aging cowboy/rocker, but there is no denying his skill. Despite his unconventional appearance and behavior, he has become one of the best investigators working for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension(BCA). He is called by the town's sheriff, Lee Coakely. Coakley is an attractive, recent divorcee with two sons. From their first encounter, there is palpable chemistry between her and Virgil. But there is no time for romantic excursions. It is soon revealed that the officer who was guarding Tripp's cell has also, apparently, committed suicide. As you can probably predict, his death is quickly determined to be a murder, as well.

As Virgil investigates, he comes across two possible directions at which to follow the case. The first involves the young Bobby Tripp. As a high school sports star, he was sure to get a large scholarship to continue playing ball at the college level. But an injury left him in his small town. Virgil's snooping reveals that Tripp may have been gay. Stuck in his small town and hiding the secret to his sexuality, it is possible that Jacob Flood threatened to reveal Tripp's secret, leading Tripp to kill him.

The other thread involves the dead officer's secretive church. Perhaps more reminiscent of a cult, the church is rumored to condone strange sex acts, including pairing underage children with older members. This thread reveals actions dating over 100 years into the towns history and possible connections to previous murders. With all of these issues comming to light, Virgil is thrust into some of the darkest crimes he has ever experienced.

This is kind of a change of pace for John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series. Yes, he continues to make Virgil one of the most entertaining and relatable characters in crime fiction, but he forces his lovable character into some of the darkest situations he's ever written about. Rape is never an easy topic, especially when it involves children, but Sandford's skills as a writer allow him to touch upon the subject with a delicate hand, while still advancing his fast paced mystery. This is the best Virgil Flowers novel to date, with a strong web of mystery that will keep you engrossed until the very last page.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 27, book 27)

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