Sunday, August 28, 2011

A View From Heaven....

Today's review concerns The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold, first published in 2002. It is set in the early 1970s in Norristown, PA. The book is narrated by teenager Susie Salmon, who, as the novel opens, is murdered on the way home from school one night. Her spirit watches from Heaven as her family tries to cope with the loss. Susie's Heaven is not the white clouded, angelic haven we expect, but a place very personal to her. In many ways, it appears to be a way station to the "next level." 

Susie's family consists of her parents, Abigail & Jack, and two younger siblings, her sister Lindsey and brother Buckley. Abigail's mother Lynn comes to live with the family and help them as they deal with the aftermath of Susie's disappearance. We know she is dead, but the family goes through an agonizing period where she is believed to be missing, but no proof of her death can be found. The investigation continues as we (& Susie) observe the family, their neighbors and even Susie's killer. The grief and pain of their situation deepens, as everyone deals with the loss in their own way.

Susie watches all this from above, telling the story and interspersing it with her own memories of growing up as part of the Salmon family. Sebold's prose & descriptions are first rate, and the characterizations are excellent. Even supporting characters are well-defined, including Ray Singh (a boy who had feelings for Susie) and Ruth Connors, another teen who feels Susie's presence in a unique way. As fate & circumstances draw the characters together & apart, Susie & her family both come to their own peace regarding her fate. What's nice about the novel is that it's got a spiritual tone without being overtly religious. It's a unique story told from a different perspective, and is a great read. 

The novel was made into a film in 2009 by director Peter Jackson (the Lord of The Rings films, King Kong) and stars Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci and Saorise Ronan (in a fine performance) as Susie. It's a visually interesting & well-acted adaptation of the novel. In either medium, The Lovely Bones is a compelling, emotional story of how grief & loss can ultimately lead to faith & hope for the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Set iTunes to Random...

A Playlist for this beautiful Friday; some songs that in the past week were either playing on iTunes shuffle, stuck in my head, or popping up in discussions. Some of these are great songs, some are fun tunes, a few might be termed "guilty pleasures" but enjoy the list and feel free to comment below.

1. Mr. Grey by The Len Price 3 from Pictures
2. Rehab Girl by The Bleeding Hearts from Nothin’ On But The Radio
3. Evangeline by Matthew Sweet from Girlfriend
4. Carmelita by Warren Zevon from Warren Zevon
5. I Can't Wait by Nu Shooz from Poolside
6. Julie Don't Live Here Anymore by ELO from Time
7. Save Your Love by Bruce Springsteen from The Promise
8. Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry from Ode To Billie Joe
9. Feeling Good by Nina Simone from The Very Best of Nina Simone
10. So Very Hard To Go by Tower of Power from Tower of Power
11. If You Love Me by Steven Page from Page One
12. Maria's Wedding by Black 47 from Fire of Freedom
13. Apple Pie by White Trash from White Trash
14. You & Tequila by Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter from Hemingway's Whiskey
15. Days Like This by Van Morrison from Days Like This
16. Something’s Got A Hold on Me by Christina Aguilera from Burlesque
17. Kiss Me Deadly by Lita Ford from Lita
18. It's A Shame by The Spinners from The Very Best of The Spinners
19. Stoney End by Laura Nyro from More Than A New Discovery
20. Fox On The Run by The Sweet from Desolation Boulevard

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Apes "Rise" to the occasion

It’s always a bit dangerous to remake or rework a classic movie.  You run the risk of alienating the very audience for whom the film is produced. Just ask Tim Burton, whose “re-imagining” of Planet of the Apes from 2001 is not well-regarded by fans. While the film had impressive special effects, the plot was weak, and the changes made to the original story were not well received.  The current trend is called a “reboot” which updates a film series or character for a new generation ; for example, Batman in 2005’s Batman Begins or James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his serum on chimpanzees.  One of his test subjects goes on a rampage, because she believes her baby is in danger.  The mother is killed, and Will takes home the baby, and raises him. Will’s father, Charles (John Lithgow), an Alzheimer’s sufferer, befriends the chimp, and they name him Caesar. Will secretly gives his father the serum, and he begins to improve. Meanwhile, Caesar shows signs of heightened intelligence; his mother has passed on the serum’s improvements genetically.

Unfortunately, the effects of the serum on Will’s father are temporary. When a neighbor (due to a misunderstanding) threatens Charles, Caesar attacks the man, and is confined to a primate facility. The apes there are abused by the owner’s son; Caesar forms a bond with his fellow prisoners, and plots an escape. Meanwhile, Will is working on a more advanced form of the serum, and continuing his tests. However, there may be a dark side effect to his discovery .

As Will and his boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) debate ending the research, Caesar and his ape brethren escape the facility, and run wild. Will races to save Caesar’s life, as the apes go on the rampage. The film is well paced and exciting; director Rupert Wyatt takes his time developing the story, and the ape sequences are amazing. The effects work by Weta Digital (Peter Jackson’s company) is fantastic. Motion capture was used to create the ape characters, and Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films) is wonderful as Caesar.

Fans will have fun spotting the many references to the original film; visually, in dialogue and in character names. The clever script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver pays homage to the prior “Apes” movies, but creates a new mythology of its own. Franco is effective as Will; Lithgow is excellent as Charles; there are also good supporting performances from Brian Cox, Frida Pinto, Tyler Labine and Tom Felton (who portrayed Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films). If you’re a fan of the “Apes” series, you’ll really enjoy this re-working of the classic saga. If you’re a newcomer to the series, it’s a solid science-fiction film.  20th Century Fox has come up with their 2nd successful reboot of a franchise during this summer movie season (the other being X-Men: First Class). Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Source Code: A smart sci-fi thriller

I’m always happy to discover a movie that transcends its genre, and is entertaining as well. Source Code (2011) is a mind-bending, well made science-fiction film that delivers on its interesting premise. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago, but is unsure about how he got there. A woman sitting across from him appears to know him, and chats with him, but keeps calling him by a different name. When he glances at his reflection, he sees someone else’s face. Suddenly, the train explodes, and he wakes up inside a small capsule, facing a video screen.

He’s disoriented, as the last thing he really remembers is being a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. An Air Force officer on the screen tells him he’s on a mission to find the terrorist who blew up the train. The military believes another, larger attack by the same person or group is imminent, and they need to find them before they carry out their plan. Stevens is told he is part of a project that can send subjects back to an eight minute window in the past; Stevens has that long to figure out the terrorist’s identity; he cannot change what has already occurred, but he can gather the information needed and return to the present.

As he is sent back additional times, we learn more about the mystery of how he got where he is, and why the “Source Code” project is so important. It’s part mystery, part science fiction and part action thriller. As he is sent back again & again, Stevens forms a bond with Christina (Michele Monaghan), the passenger that he is sitting with, but he’s told he can’t save her, because she is already dead. He needs to focus on identifying the terrorist, and saving lives in a future attack. But Stevens begins to question his mission, and if the past can’t be changed after all.

That’s the essence of this intriguing film, that recalls the best of TV’s Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits: two series that told thought-provoking stories that focused on well-drawn characters and their reactions to the fantastic events around them. Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones, who also helmed the 2009 film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, another interesting sci-fi film, which is also well worth viewing. He's crafted a smart, stylish sci-fi thriller along with writer Ben Ripley.

The cast is excellent, with Gyllenhaal just right as Stevens, who wants to do the right thing, but keeps getting thwarted by the rules of time and space. Vera Farmiga offers solid support as Goodwin, the military contact that helps him journey to the past. Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) is appropriately prickly as the head of the Source Code project, and Monaghan is good as the woman who Stevens wants to save so badly, he may sacrifice everything to do so. Trivia fans, take note: watch the credits for the actor who portrays Gyllenhaal’s father in a voice cameo; it’s a nice nod to a well-regarded sci-fi series of the past. Another note; director Jones is the son of singer David Bowie.

Check out  Source Code: it’s a pleasant surprise in a genre that too often releases mediocre films that don’t stay with you after they end; this one will. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.