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Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:21

Fractured fairy tale – ‘Onward’

Obviously, I love Pixar movies. I’m a human being with feelings and a soul, so of course I dig the work of the acclaimed animation studio. That being said, I also have to accept that because they have set the bar so very high, there will be occasions in which they fail to clear it.

So it is with their latest offering “Onward,” a film that, were it to come from any other studio, would likely be hailed as great work, but because it bears the Pixar name, it feels just the slightest bit underwhelming.

Make no mistake – “underwhelming” is by no means the same as “bad” – this is actually a charming and fun film. The concept is interesting enough, the vocal performances are typically strong and the execution is quite good. Jokes are made and heartstrings are tugged. All the usual pieces are here. It just doesn’t quite ascend to the level of accomplishment that we’ve come to expect from the studio.

Published in Movies

One of the great joys of my job as a critic is the moment of discovery, that indefinable instant when the realization washes over you that a chosen book is even better and more interesting than you’d hoped. I’ve gotten pretty good at curating what makes it from the pile to the page, but sometimes, I get more than I bargained for – in a good way.

I had just such a moment of discovery with Tessa Gratton’s latest book “Lady Hotspur” (Tor, $29.99). It was a book that I had heard a little bit about and was intrigued. Gender-swapped fantasy-flavored loose reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” certainly sounded like it could be my jam, so I started reading.

What I got was a high fantasy tale of love and loss, of the big wounds of warfare and the quiet cuts of palace intrigue. Set in the same world as Gratton’s earlier “The Queens of Innis Lear,” this new book expands upon that foundation, finding ways to both broaden and narrow the scope. It’s a beautiful and intricate landscape across which compelling characters stride. It’s smart and sweet and occasionally savage … and a heck of a read.

Published in Style

When “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” came out a couple of years ago, I was as surprised as anyone when it turned out to actually be pretty good. Who’d have thought a two-decades-later sort-of-sequel to a mid-90s kids movie would turn out to be both entertaining and WILDLY lucrative?

Well, having the Rock doesn’t hurt.

After that film did just shy of a billion dollars at the global box office, it was obviously going to get a sequel of its own. That sequel has arrived, as “Jumanji: The Next Level” has hit theaters.

And guess what? This one’s pretty good too. Not as good as the last one, perhaps, but solid. One assumes it will also make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Published in Movies

Writing is hard. Writing WELL is even harder. There are some writers who devote their lives to honing their specific craft, to finding ways to excel in their chosen niche. Some write fiction, some write nonfiction. Some lean toward the literary, while others revel in genre. Some are reporters and journalists. Some write essays or memoirs or comic book arcs. A person who is able to do any one of those things well is worthy of celebration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates does ALL OF IT.

The National Book Award winner and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient has made his first foray into the realm of fiction (leaving aside his magnificent Marvel turns on Black Panther and Captain America books); his newest work is “The Water Dancer” (One World, $28), a heartbreakingly powerful work of historical fiction and magical realism. It’s a fictionalized exploration of one young man’s struggle with (and against) the peculiar institution that remains our country’s greatest shame.

It’s also a story about the magic of memory and the power of stories, a look at how our pasts can shape our futures and how words can change the world. It’s a tale of love lost and rediscovered, all under the looming shadow of slavery. Freedom – real freedom – comes with costs both expected and surprising, but there are many who are willing to pay all that and more.

Published in Style

There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to choosing to dig into a literary series. The truth is that a lot of these series, while perfectly OK, are just that – OK. And if you’re OK with OK, well … OK. But if you’re someone who wants something more, someone who is looking for a much richer experience than you can get from the standard-issue sci-fi or fantasy series, taking the plunge can be tough.

Tom Miller’s latest is “The Philosopher’s War” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). It’s the second installment in a series begun last year with “The Philosopher’s Flight.” It is also a book that strives for that richness of experience, one replete with interesting ideas, compelling characters and an ambitious world. And while it might not quite reach the heights to which it ultimately aspires, it still soars plenty high indeed.

Published in Buzz

There’s something to be said for a story whose narrative can be explained with elevator-pitch brevity. While intricate plotting can be an engaging, thrilling part of a book or film, it can also be nice to enjoy the simplicity of getting the essence of the thing in a single sentence.

“Yesterday” – directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis – is a magnificent example of the latter. “Singer-songwriter wakes up as the only person who remembers The Beatles.” That’s it. That’s what this movie is about. Simple.

Of course, that simplicity is deceptive. It’s a great hook, but what next? How do you take your admittedly-fascinating idea and build it into a story? It’s a dilemma that Boyle and Curtis struggle with a little more than one might have hoped, but the film still hangs together well thanks to Boyle’s strong-as-ever visual stylings, a top-notch lead performance and – of course – the music.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 04 June 2019 16:18

‘Middlegame’ brings its A-game

The practice of alchemy is one of those things that most people are familiar with even if they don’t necessarily know that they possess that familiarity. Certain basic notions – turning lead into gold, the Philosopher’s Stone – have transcended their protoscientific origins and made their way into the common vernacular.

But what if alchemy worked? Really and truly worked? And what if its adherents still walked among us, operating at the behest of secret cabals devoted to both preserving and elevating the practice? What if the alchemists sought to rule not just the universe, but the very laws that governed it?

That’s the world we get with Seanan McGuire’s “Middlegame” (Tor, $29.99). But our entry into this world is not through alchemy writ large, but rather through its products and practitioners and (sometimes) both. It is a story of magic by way of science – or vice versa – but it is also the story of what it means to have gifts you don’t understand. It’s about living in a world where the possible is possible, but only to a scant few. It’s about being the sort of special that scares just about everyone who doesn’t share that kind of specialness.

It’s about the choices we make and the consequences, both near-term and far-reaching, of those choices.

Published in Buzz

The box office has grown increasingly stratified in recent years, with films fitting firmly into established pigeonholes with the expectation of appealing to this or that specific audience and making X number of dollars. Superhero movies and animated epics and action tentpoles and low-budget horror/thriller – that’s most of what we see at the theater these days.

So when a film like “The Kid Who Would Be King” comes around, it’s worth noting. This is a live-action, family-friendly movie, a movie for kids starring kids; we don’t see many of those anymore.

And here’s the thing: it’s good.

It is a charming, thoughtful throwback courtesy of writer/director Joe Cornish (in his first directorial since 2011’s excellent “Attack the Block”), capturing a 21st century version of what one might call the “Amblin vibe,” named after the Steven Spielberg production company that was responsible for many of the best family films. It’s well-made, with a story built around a retelling of Arthurian legend while ALSO being a wonderful tale of friendship … and it’s the most downright optimistic movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 13:42

Fantasy fun with ‘More Fun and Games’

What would you do if your fantasy became your reality?

That’s the question being asked by local author Dave Barrett in his new book “More Fun and Games,” the sequel to 2016’s “It’s All Fun and Games.” It’s the continuing story of a group of high school friends whose weekend of role-playing winds up turning into a life lived in a world far beyond anything they ever thought possible.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 13:58

Into the ‘Breach’

There’s probably no subgenre in all of speculative fiction that I enjoy more than alternate history. For whatever reason, the notions of experiencing familiar events filtered through an unfamiliar lens and seeing different ideas of how the world might move if there were subtle – or not-so-subtle – alterations are endlessly fascinating to me.

That isn’t to say that every effort is a good one. There’s as much lazy, formulaic writing in alternate history as there is anywhere else in the realm of genre fiction; it all comes down to keeping eyes and mind open and hoping the next one you grab is a good one.

W. L. Goodwater’s “Breach” (Ace, $16) is a good one. The first in a proposed series, this alternate history takes a look at the Cold War in a world where magic is real, a tool that has been weaponized in the service of battle. It’s a time period that sometimes gets short shrift in alt-history circles, but Goodwater more than makes up for that with a taut tale that offers a rich sense of a world that, despite the presence of magic, is not that different than our own.

Published in Buzz
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