Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review Ragout: The Silver Bells and Mistletoe Edition

Yes, it's true. The blogging has been a bit sparse lately. You know how it is ... campaigning, election, work, job stuff, etc. Plus, I've been trying to get back to the gym a bit lately. All of that adds up to some sluffing off on the blogging.

Suck it up and be patient, gentle reader. Or go click on a few ads to incentivize me. Either way, I'll eventually get off my lazy butt and write up a few substantial posts. In the meantime, I thought I'd throw out a few quick reviews of some recent books and movies I've been reading and watching in the time that I could've spent writing long, thoughtful blog posts that would have changed the course of history.


Speaking of history, we start today's adventures in reviewing with a semi-autobiographical graphic novel set in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution: Cuba: My Revolution (2010) by Inverna Lockpez & Dean Haspiel.

The story follows Sonya, a young Cuban medical student who supports Fidel's revolution but runs afoul of Cuba's new government and eventually becomes disenchanted with the changes in her country. Telling this story as a graphic novel lends the whole thing an immediacy that it might not have had as a text piece, and the art is truly beautiful and evocative in places:

It's a great read, and especially interesting for its up-close view of the Cuban Revolution from inside Cuba. It's also a great example of the ways in which graphic novels can tell tales far from their comic-book roots.

All Clear (2010) by Connie Willis -- This and Blackout, which came out earlier this year, are really Part 1 and Part 2 of the same 1200-page book. (You can find my brief review of Blackout here.) The premise is that time-travelling historians find themselves stuck in London during the Blitz, and fear that they may have accidentally caused the allies to lose World War II. The entirety gives a great up-close look at everyday Londoners during the darkest days of World War II, and serve up a moving portrait of the heroism that can emerge from regular people in extraordinary times. Willis's prose gives a great immediacy to the many scenes set during the air raids of the Blitz and during the later V1 and V2 attacks, and the time-travel plot provides great framing and narrative impetus.

These two books really exceeded my expectations, and I suspect that I'll go back to re-read them -- together, this time -- sooner instead of later.

The Red Box (1937) by Rex Stout; And Four to Go (1956) by Rex Stout -- Just wanted to mention a couple more Nero Wolfe mysteries as I work my way back through them all in more-or-less chronological order.

The Red Box was one of the earlier ones that I didn't have on my shelves, and that took me a while to dig up. It's a good read ... not one of the best in the series, but a fun ride with pre-World War II Archie and Nero, and a good look at them before they had quite settled comfortably as settled characters. Archie is a bit rougher than his later version while Wolfe is a bit more unpredictably eccentric. The plot itself involves poisoned candies and models and ... well, heck, it hardly matters. What matters is that you can rest assured that Wolfe and Archie will get to the bottom of it.

And Four to Go contains four Nero Wolfe novellas, three of which are set around a holiday. My favorite of the batch is "Christmas Party" which contains one of Wolfe's most remarkable out-of-office expeditions, and which really has a few nice commentaries on Archie's and Wolfe's regard for one another. I'm generally more fond of the full novels because of the twists and turns they contain, but all four of these present an interesting puzzle with a clever solution.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) -- This hardly needs a plug from me, but I wanted to mention that I enjoyed it quite a bit because I was a bit concerned that Deathly Hallows wouldn't translate as well to the big screen as some of the other books. Splitting the final Potter book into two parts seems to have worked well here, and in some ways the pacing of the movie works quite well. The whole thing is essentially a long second act, but it's a really good long second act and it gives me confidence that the finale has a chance to live up to expectations. There's also a particularly lovely animated telling of the fable of the Deathly Hallows that's as striking a bit of short animation as I've seen in a while.

I suppose that somebody who had never seen a Harry Potter movie or read a Harry Potter book would be confused by the whole thing. But really, is anybody going to this film as their first Harry Potter experience?

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) -- I can't for the life of me figure out how this was a box-office bomb because I enjoyed the hell out of it. I picked up the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels this summer during the pre-film hype, and enjoyed them greatly. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out how they were going to get them on film. But this movie did a great job of capturing a lot of what made those books such a fun read. Michael Cera makes a great Scott Pilgrim; Mary Elizabeth Winstead is charismatic and beautiful as the enigmatic Ramona Flowers; the supporting cast sparkles; the music, much of it by Beck, rocks; and the video-game-style fights are action packed; there are lots of nice little touches; and the whole movie is a lot of fun to watch. Heck, don't take my word for it: it scored a nifty 80% on the TomatoMeter.

So why did this thing bomb at the box office?

I dunno ... maybe it's my fault. I was really busy when this came out in mid-August. I expected I'd get to one weekend ... and then it was gone before I knew it. Was everybody just really busy this Summer? I doubt it. The Expendables with its flock of over-the-hill action stars came out the same weekend and racked up more than $100 million in ticket sales -- more than three times Scott Pilgrim's final take.

Maybe the real problem is that there just hasn't been another movie quite like this, so audiences didn't quite know to make of it. I dunno: popular young stars, lots of Internet buzz, good reviews, big-money marketing campaign ... and then a big ol' egg at the box office. Okay, maybe $31.5 million isn't a total disaster, but it also wasn't anywhere close to expectations for a big-budget flick like this.

In any case this movie is a lot of fun to watch. I could be wrong, but I think this movie is going to rise in esteem as the years go by. Check it out and let me know what you think.

(BTW, you can find my review of Vols. 1-4 of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels here. I don't seem to have written up a review of #5 and #6, so I'll have to add that in somewhere. Oh, heck, how about here: they were good. You should read them all. In order. Now.)

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