Movie Review: Cinderella (3 *’s or 4 ½ *’s) (2015)

All right. I admit it. I broke down and went and saw Cinderella. Mostly for this blog. But I was also curious. Anyway, the film is by Disney, of course. It was directed by Kenneth Branagh and starred Cate Blanchett (the cruel stepmother), Helena Bonham Carter (the fairy godmother), and a number of lesser well-known names.

It tells the story of Cinderella. And just so. I haven’t seen the original Cinderella animated film nor read any of the stories for a number of years, but this version added nothing new. It kept to the original storyline and at times seemed to move swiftly through it, ticking off story details as it went. Which is fine. I was kind of hoping that there would have been some additional “meat” to the story, but there wasn’t. It was basically (as far as I can remember), the animated version told with real people with little variation. It is a far cry from the film Ever After (starring Drew Barrymore in 1998) which is a Cinderella story with real content that I highly recommend.

Anyway, Cinderella is a young woman whose life takes a turn for the worse when first her mother dies, and then her father (after remarrying). The stepmother and her two daughters treat Cinderella awfully, making her basically an oppressed servant in her own household. Then, through a freak chance she meets the prince and the romantic legend begins to bloom.

Strengths: it was put together fine; the acting was fine; the special effects were spectacular, of course (but that goes without saying … I mean it’s 2015 and it’s Disney); the plot, although somewhat thin, made a coherent whole. Weaknesses: probably the only major weakness was that the romantic relationship was built on virtually nothing … a couple chance meetings, and that was it. But the film was made for children, so that’s probably not a fair criticism. Anyway, it was okay as far as Disney children films go. Not sure it needed to be rated PG; it might have gotten away with a mere G.

Anyway, I’ll give Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella three stars if you’re an adult, but four and a half if you’re a little kid looking for a classic romantic fairy tale.

Old Movie Review: Heavenly Sword (3 ½*’s) (2014)

Heavenly Sword is an animated film (I did not realize that when we first picked it out—but that’s okay, animated films are fine) set in ancient Japan (or, at least, that’s how it appeared to me). The main character is a young woman named Nariko (voice by Anna Torv). She has a compatriot (her sister) named Kai (Ashleigh Ball). The movie is based on the computer game of the same name. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t really comment on it. The movie had the feel of a computer game. It was almost like watching someone else play a computer game. Although if that is the case, the individual playing has the skill to complete it.

Anyway, the basic plot is …. hmmm, where to begin? Nariko’s family has guarded the Heavenly Sword for untold years. The Heavenly Sword is the weapon of a deity who wielded the blade to defeat an ancient, powerful enemy centuries ago. Then the deity disappeared. There is a prophecy that one day the Chosen One will be born to Nariko’s family and will wield the Heavenly Sword once again. Nariko is that child. Well, almost. She’s born at the right time and place—the first child of her father—but she’s a girl. Believing that only a boy can be the Chosen One, her father all but ignores her growing up and does little to train her. Then one day an evil king arrives at the family’s fortress with an army behind him. Soon, the fortress is in ruins and Nariko is fleeing across the countryside with the Heavenly Sword in tow, desperately searching for the true Chosen One, presumably her half-brother.

Strengths: the action was good; the plot was engaging; the dialogue was interesting. There were a few cliches, but that’s fine. Like I said, it had the feel of a computer game. It was a good way to spend about an hour and a half if you are looking for some mindless violence and chaos … all for fun, of course. Weaknesses: like I said, there were a couple cliches. But other than that, I don’t recall any major weakness in the storyline or the characters. Well, it might not be appropriate for very young children because Nariko’s father, after her birth, slept with (and sometimes raped) numerous other women in the hopes of begetting a son. But that all happens off-screen in the past.

Anyway, the film was okay for what it’s worth. I’ll give it three and a half stars out of five.

Movie Review: Seventh Son (3 ½ *’s)(2015)

            Seventh Son is a movie inspired by the novel The Spook’s Apprentice. I think there is also a novel or a series of novels out there entitled The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son which has some connection to the movie as well, but I’ve read neither, so I can’t say for sure. Anyway, the main character of this book is Tomas Ward, the apprentice of Master Spook, Gregory. A spook is a man who hunts down evil spirits and creatures. The main antagonist in the story is an evil witch queen named Mother Malkin who leads a group of lesser witches in a bid for absolute power.

The story begins with Master Gregory imprisoning Mother Malkin in a deep dark pit, covered with iron. He thinks this will hold her forever, and so he leaves her. However, ten years pass; the iron covering rusts; and the blood moon rises. As her power peaks, Mother Malkin escapes and begins to plot revenge. She kills Master Gregory’s current apprentice and he is forced to find another. Enter Tomas Ward. He is the seventh son of a seventh son (as all Spooks are). Master Gregory seeks his family out, pays the parents a significant quantity of coin, and recruits Tomas. Pressed for time, Master Gregory endeavors to train Tomas on the go. He barely survives the first evening in Master Gregory’s home because he encounters an infernal skeleton that animates and attacks. Only the intervention of Master Gregory saves him. Still, believing he lacks the time, Master Gregory still insists on seeking Mother Malkin out and training Tomas on the go. The movie follows the standard fantasy quest from there. There is a love interest, a few conflicts, lots of special effects, and so forth.

Strengths: the characters were interesting and well-developed, the story was consistent and semi-decent, and the special effects were good (as most modern movies are). The acting was fine and the dialogue was decent. Weaknesses: the plot was somewhat lacking. It was pretty much standard fantasy quest type stuff … no surprises. My biggest complaint isn’t so much a complaint as it is a warning concerning the portrayal of witches. They are portrayed in the typical Western way. Witches are evil (except for one who isn’t), servants of demons and hell. There is no exploration of the religion of Wicca in the film. For me, this is fine, because I kind of like the demonic witch figure for the purposes of story-telling. That said, such stories tend to do a disservice to real witches. Real Wicca does not involve Satan-worship or the casual practice of evil despite what some groups might say. In Wicca there is a God and a Goddess (or a Goddess and her Consort). If I want to know what a witch believes in, I will ask the witch and not someone from a different religion that has a skewed view of her. Anyway, I could probably go off for pages on Wicca and its misinterpretation, but I’ll just leave that topic there.

Anyway, Seventh Son was okay, but nothing to write home about. I’ll give it three and a half stars out of five.

Book Review: Firefight (2015: Brandon Sanderson) (4 ½ *’s)

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson is the second book in his series The Reckoners. It is a young adult novel. In a nutshell, the series is about evil super-heroes (called Epics) and the attempts of common humans to take them down. Basically, it’s set in an alternate Earth where a strange cosmic occurrence happens—a burning red star-like object appears in the sky—and a small sub-population of the humans inhabiting Earth are granted supernatural abilities. The first book in the series was entitled Steelheart (click to see my review) and it dealt with the destruction of the powerful Epic of the same name. The main character in both that tale and this one is a common human named David who has joined the underground resistance known as “The Reckoners.” They are led by a mysterious man referred to as Prof (for professor) who unbeknownst to many (although not David) is a powerful Epic himself who has sworn off using his abilities.

In the book Firefight, David leaves his home of Newcago (Chicago) and travels with his group of Reckoners to Babylon Restored (a borough of Manhattan). Although the Reckoners have a purpose there—to take down the ruling Epic and all other Epics in her service—David has plans of his own. He wants to find another powerful Epic—Firefight—an illusionist Epic who served in the Prof’s command undercover for Steelheart in the preceding novel. Basically, David has a crush on her, or perhaps is even in love with her, and he believes he can save her and convince to keep from using her powers so she will be normal. This sets up conflict with the Reckoners, because Prof wants her dead as he wants all the Epics dead.

Strengths: this is Brandon Sanderson’s work, so the strengths are many. The writing, of course, was excellent. It also had good, believable characters with well-developed personalities and emotions. Lots of conflict and tension. An interesting, convoluted plot (but not too much); I could follow everything without getting too confused. The twists and turns of the story were clever: some I saw coming, others I did not. It was a very enjoyable read. Weaknesses: maybe the fact that I saw some of the twists coming could count against it, but not by me. I prefer a novel I can follow that doesn’t become so convoluted everything seems forced.

Ultimately, I’ll give Brandon Sanderson’s Firefight four and a half stars out of five.

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings: (3 ½ *’s) (2014)

Exodus: Gods and Kings is the latest Hollywood attempt at making a movie from a biblical story. The film stars Christian Bale as Moses, as well as Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in two minor roles. There are other actors, of course, but none with names as big as these.

The story is basically the main story of the book of Exodus in the Bible. The Israelites are forced to seek refuge in Egypt from a famine (I think that’s accurate). At some point in their stay there, they are declared slaves and forced to build many of the great structures of ancient Egypt. Their slavery lasts four hundred years, giving them time to multiply, be beaten down, and ruthlessly oppressed. They call out to God, but it seems that he does not hear, until a savior is born. A child by the name of Moses who escapes certain death by being abandoned in the Nile by his mother and found by a member of the royal family. He is raised a prince in Pharoah’s house unaware of his true heritage. He visits the Jews in their servitude. One of them tells him the truth; he does not believe him, so goes on his way. He is accosted by an Egyptian guard whom he kills. He is banished from Egypt for the murder, sentenced to live in exile. In the desert he is tested and tried until he finds a new home and family. Then, he has a terrible fall and encounters God and his whole life changes.

Strengths: the acting was good, the story was engaging, and had one or two embellishments which added to it in an acceptable fashion. There were no terrible holes in the plot. The God in the movie acted through nature as opposed to in contradiction of nature … which can be a plus or a minus depending on how you want to look at it. Biblical purists probably won’t like that aspect of it. Weaknesses: they had an Egyptian counselor who explained the plagues of Egypt in a scientific fashion that seemed too advanced for the time in question. But that is what you are probably most likely reduced to when you have a God that works through nature. Also, the plagues were over in a heartbeat. Finally, I didn’t like the portrayal of God as a child; in fact, God, at times, seemed almost demonic to me. Oh yes, and one more thing, the movie didn’t seem to have a clear grasp that Moses was the servant, and God was the God. When he was inscribing the Ten Commandments Moses said, “I wouldn’t inscribe them, if I didn’t agree with them.” That’s a bit touchy. It’s really not Moses place to agree or disagree with God. And Bible purists will probably take issue with that as well.

Anyway, despite its faults, it was an entertaining movie, and I’ll give Exodus: Gods and Kings three and a half stars out of five.

Book Review: Stardust (Neil Gaiman) (3 ½ *’s)

Stardust is the second novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I’ve read. The other was The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Like Ocean, Stardust is a relatively short novel with reasonably long chapters that were broken up into short subsections. I saw the movie a few years back. I enjoyed the movie, so I figured I’d give the book a go. It was an easy quick read; in fact, I read the entire novel in a single day. The main character in the novel is a seventeen-year-old young man by the name of Tristran, who is hopelessly besotted with the youthful beauty Victoria. In a fit of indifference, hoping to put off Tristran and his advances, Victoria says she will give him whatever he wants, if he finds the star they both witness falling. Much to her surprise, Tristran agrees and heads out of town in pursuit. There is a catch, of course; it’s called Faerie.

Tristran and Victoria live in a town called Wall, named because it has grown up in the shadow of a long wall separating our world from the world of Faerie that lies on the other side of the wall. There is a hole in the wall, a gateway between the two worlds. Once every nine years the two worlds meet in something of a Faerie Market which is held on the Faerie side of the wall for three days. It is quite the event, and it was a liaison there between Tristran’s father and a captured Faerie woman that led to Tristran’s birth. Tristran does not yet know that he is half Faerie, but his quest to please Victoria will lead him on many revealing adventures. It is this quest which consumes the bulk of the story. Tristran does find the star he is looking for, but it is not anything like what he expects. Still, he endeavors to bring it back to Victoria, no matter the cost.

Strengths: the prose was excellent; the characters were reasonably well-developed given the time and space the author had. The plot was okay: Perhaps the natural surprise and intrigue suffered because I had seen the movie previously. Weaknesses: I take issue with a few things. There were several elements in the novel that jarred on me because they seemed more appropriate for an adult book than something written in the Fairy-Tale type of style and tone that Stardust seemed to embody to me. There was a sex scene (although not too graphic), and a few profanities like p*** (which isn’t a really big one), and also f***. Like I said, they just didn’t fit the tone of the novel as a whole and were therefore kind of jarring. In any event, the novel never really gripped me. It wasn’t bad. It just lacked something I can’t define.

I’ll give Neil Gaiman’s Stardust three and a half stars out of five.

Book Review: Emperor of Thorns (Mark Lawrence) (4 *’s)

Emperor of Thorns is the third book of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series. You can find my reviews of the preceding books here: Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. I’ve been looking forward to this book, and I enjoyed it considerably. It continues the story of Jorg Ancrath, now a king, 20 (I think) years of age. He’s still ruthless and basically corrupt, but he has grown to care for his pregnant wife and soon-to-be born son. And now he has his eyes set on the throne of the Emperor which has been vacant for over one hundred years.

The story begins with Jorg Ancrath and a small contingent of his loyal forces being escorted by the Gilden Guards to the formal meeting of the kings to select an emperor called the Congression. Much of the present day tale follows him and his journey on the road. He encounters undead creatures of various sorts: common undead soldiers, and more powerful lichkin. Throughout there are flashbacks to Jorg’s adventures five years ago when he traveled to radiation poisoned lands in search of ancient technology, the land of the Moors to meet a powerful caliph and his mathmagician, and to Vyene, the seat of the empire. He has his trials and tribulations along the way, influenced by both modern magic and ancient technologies (that’s kind of a funny twist I just noticed: modern magic and ancient technology). The whole leads to a climax in the Empire’s throne room where he confronts the horror of horrors: the Dead King, leader of the unholy armies of the dead.

Strengths: the writing was excellent, the story gripping and sufficiently convoluted to keep me engaged, and the plot was well done. Weaknesses: I’ve said in my prior two reviews that I was not fond of the character of Jorg as a main character since he’s basically evil. He’s grown on me to a certain extent, and I do enjoy his adventures now. He’s grown a little: he cares somewhat for his wife and even more for his son. That doesn’t justify anything he’s done, and makes the juxtaposition between himself and savior of the realms an odd one, to say the least. Finally, I was raised Catholic and the prevalent corruption throughout his Church did not appeal to me. He can paint his Church any way he likes, of course, and the modern Catholic Church has known some well-deserved criticism for its moral failings at times, but not one of the priests in these novels really measured up to any of the priests I have known in my life.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and I’ll give Emperor of Thorns four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Into the Woods: (4 stars) (2014)

Into the Woods is the latest musical released into theatres by Disney. It follows the tradition of many animated features, but is a live-action film with lots of singing. It showcases a lot of talented actors and actresses in it. The most significant are: Meryl Streep (as the witch), Emily Blunt (as the Baker’s Wife), Johnny Depp (as the Wolf), James Corden (as the Baker), and Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella). The tale told incorporates four famous Fairy Tales into a single tale woven around a Baker and his wife.

The Baker and his wife are childless. At the beginning of the movie, they learn that this is the result of a curse. A witch offers to reverse the curse, if the pair obtain four special items integral to four concurrent fairy tales: a cow white as snow, a golden slipper, yellow hair like corn, and a cape red as blood. The cow, of course, belongs to Jack (Jack and the Beanstalk), the slipper belongs to Cinderella, the yellow hair belongs to Rapunzel, and the red cape belongs to Little Red Riding Hood. Desperately, the Baker and his Wife enter the wood in search of the four items, items with which the owners may not easily part. Each tale interweaves with the others creating a tapestry of mystery and magic.

Strengths: it was a musical, so the acting qua acting (love that word) was minimal, but what there was was very good. There was lots of singing, and the singing was well-performed as well. The special effects were good, and the plot was engaging. The dialogue, via song and sometimes not, was also good. Weaknesses: the movie was dark at times, possibly too dark for the very young. However, it was rated PG, not G, so I would think that parents should be cautioned against bringing the very young to the film. My biggest complaint comes at the end. And it has nothing to do with plot, acting, or dialogue. One of the last musical numbers played in the song had questionable lyrics. There was a lot of “There is no right or wrong,” or something to that effect. Disney did the same thing briefly in Frozen, an animated film I richly enjoyed. I just do not think it is a good idea to try to instill in our children that there is no moral truth. Yes, I get the notion that we all make mistakes. But you can only understand a mistake through a moral lens. The music itself was fine … it was just the words were not appropriate, I think. Also of concern to parents, I’m sure, was when the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s prince (married prince, at that) had a brief tryst in the woods.

Despite its flaws, it was still an enjoyable film and I’ll give Disney’s Into the Woods a full four stars out of five.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (4 *’s) (2015)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies completes the story begun in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and continued in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie stars Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Luke Evans (Bard) and a whole host of other actors and stars including Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), and Christopher Lee (Saruman).

The story picks up where the last movie left off. Smaug is destroying Lake Town and only Bard the archer can hope to stop him with the last remaining black arrow. It is a tense scene, worth witnessing, but suffice it to say, Smaug’s screen time in this movie is probably less than five minutes. He’s in at the beginning, then he’s dead. Then the real challenges begin: for Bard, it is finding refuge for the survivors of Lake Town. For Thorin, it is keeping the Lonely Mountain in the hands of the dwarves. For Bilbo, it is being a true friend to Thorin and company, seeking the best for them, despite what they might think. Soon, there is an army of humans, and an army of Elves on the doorstep of the mountain. The entrance is walled off and fortified, but Thorin and company are only twelve in number. They send word to Dain of the Iron Hills via a thrush and shortly an army of Dwarves arrive on the scene. It looks like there is about to be bloodshed between the Elves and the Dwarves when an army of Orcs arrives. A foe everybody can hate. There is much bloodshed and chaos. Thorin has his final epic struggle with the pale orc, Azog. Some of the company die. The dwarf-elf love interest of the second movie is left unfulfilled and bittersweet as Kili dies. Then, the Eagles arrive, carrying Beorn with them. There is more blood and chaos, and the orcs are defeated. Oh yes, and all throughout this is interwoven Gandalf’s story. He is rescued by the combined efforts of Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman. Sauron is driven off, the ringwraiths are defeated. Then, Gandalf is off rushing to the aid of Bilbo, Thorin, and company.

Strengths: the acting was good, the special effects were good, the story kept my interest even though the bulk of it was about a battle and the build up to said battle. Tolkien purists might object to some of the liberties taken with the material, but I thought that all the modifications were still in keeping with the spirit of the tale. Weaknesses: Probably my biggest complaint was the fact that Smaug was killed in the first five minutes of the movie. If you’re going to keep the dragon around after the movie he should have died in (The Desolation of Smaug), then you should make ample use of him. Oh yeah, there also these things called werewyrms, or something like that, that showed up briefly, dug some tunnels, and then disappeared. I mean, what was that?

Anyway, I’ll give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies four stars out of five.