Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2D) (2011)

July 31, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

With the exception of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (starting next week, can’t wait!), Marvel’s mega blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger was, up to this point, my most anticipated movie of the year.  To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the superhero other than the fact that he’s going to be in next year’s most anticipated movie, The Avengers, along with Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and a bunch of other superheroes led by an eye-patched Samuel L Jackson.  Maybe it’s the name and/or the costume, but Captain America never aroused much interest in me — until now.

In short, I loved Captain America: The First Avenger.  It’s the second best pre-Avengers tie-in film after the first Iron Man (in other words, better than Iron Man 2, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, even though Ed Norton is out and Mark Ruffalo is in as Bruce Banner).  Marvellous action, incredible special effects, solid performances and a cracker of an origin story which includes Nazis, big guns, advanced technology and the occult — what’s there not to like?

This is an origins film that tells of how a scrawny, weak little man with a big heart by the name of Steve Rogers became Captain America as part of a secret military experiment during World War II.  I won’t spoil much more than that except to say that the film has ties to Stark Industries from Iron Man and a powerful energy source that appears to originate from the world of Thor.

I was surprised how well the story was executed by director Joe Johnston (Rocketeer, Jumanji, The Wolfman).  It would have been easy to make this film too patriotically and cringeworthyly American, but somehow Johnston kept the focus on the story and characters and even had a little fun with the unavoidable Americanism of the character.

Speaking of character, a lot of ‘hardcore’ Marvel fans blew their sacks when they heard Chris Evans had been cast as the titular superhero.  ‘He can’t be Captain America,’ they cried, ‘because he’s already Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four!’  Be that as it may, nobody wants to see another Fantastic Four movie, and Chris Evans makes a wonderful Captain America — big and buffed, blonde hair, blue eyes, and oozing All-American charm.  He might not be an actor with the greatest range or depth of emotions (like say a Robert Downey Jr), but he’s good enough here because he is physically perfect and Steve Rogers is a highly likeable character.  The special effects used to create the pre-suped up Steve Rogers were practically flawless.

Hugo Weaving plays the villain Red Skull, Hitler’s crazy head of weaponry, and I’m afraid to say he was a little bit of a weak link.  It’s not entirely Weaving’s fault because anyone that can play Agent Smith (from The Matrix), Elrond (from The Lord of the Rings) and V (from V for Vendetta) must be one of the greatest supporting actors of our time, but here he’s not given enough juice to make Red Skull a worthy adversary for Captain America.

The rest of the supporting cast was strong.  Haley Atwell was solid as Peggy Carter, pretty much the only female character in the film, as was Sebastian Stan (I know him from Gossip Girl), who was adequate as the sidekick.  Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones had relatively minor but important roles, though the real stand out had to be Tommy Lee Jones, who was fantastic as Colonel Chester Phillips, which would have been a bit of a nothing role had Jones not worked his magic.

For me, strangely, the film was at its best when Rogers was not the fully-costumed Captain America.  Following him in his journey from sickly little dude to superpowered superhero was so enjoyable that when he finally became Captain America I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.  Not to say that it wasn’t still exciting — it’s just that there have been so many quality superhero movies in recent years that it becomes really difficult for one to rise above the others when it comes to action sequences.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger from start to finish — and that includes the little sneak peak we got at the upcoming Avengers movie following the credits (a long long wait, but certainly worth it).

4 out of 5!

Farewell, China!

July 31, 2011 in China, Travel by pacejmiller

Four months after visiting the place, my posts on China are finally at an end.  As with my other travel writings, I have set up a page with all my China posts, which can be found by hovering the cursor over the ‘travel hq’ tab in the header.

I’ll leave you with some photos of the iconic Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai skyline from the area known as the Bund.

The haziness is apparently permanent in Shanghai…


Book Review: ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham

July 30, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I’ve always been interested in the massive global phenomenon that is Mr John Grisham, and despite my disappointment with The Associate and relative disappointment with The Firm, I decided to check out Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Grisham names the novel as one of his favourites, and most people have told me it’s one of his best.  And I think it has one heck of a premise — a young black girl is brutally raped by two racist rednecks, the girl’s father seeks retribution, and a predominantly white Mississippi community deals with its aftermath.  Caught in the middle is a young, brash criminal defense lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance (a character Grisham admits was modelled on himself).

Lots of stuff happens in this book, which is ultimately a courtroom drama/thriller centred around this very provocative premise.  Would you do the same thing if it happened to your child?  Would the jury convict?  Would you vote to convict if you were on the jury?  Those are the types of questions Grisham keeps asking throughout the story.

Grisham paints the fictional town of Clanton (also used in a later book, The Last Juror) extremely well.  There is a whole cast of characters, with almost a couple being introduced every chapter, and many of them are memorable and well-developed, especially the town sheriff Ozzie, the trial judge Noose, the obnoxious DA Buckley and Jake’s mentor Lucien.  A number of minor characters also have their moments.

A Time to Kill is a very good read, but not a great one.  The opening chapters sucked me into the world of the story but every now and then throughout the 500+ pages there were times when I lost interest in the narrative.  The strengths are the characters (good to see Jake Brigance has his own agenda and isn’t acting out of the kindness of his heart) and the moments of tension — either from the trial itself or the occasional threat of physical danger.  However, as Grisham admitted himself in the book’s introduction, he did waffle on far too much about things that didn’t need to be.

Like many first novels, A Time to Kill could have been pared back a lot more to speed up the pace, especially considering that the actual trial itself does not commence until almost four-fifths of the way through the book.  I felt some parts could have been condensed (the pointless, sometimes repetitive chatter) while others (such as the trial testimonies and jury deliberations) could have been drawn out more.  It’s a shame because with better plotting and pacing it could have been unputdownable.

As for the moral debate in the book — I had to keep reminding myself that it was originally published in 1989 and that a small, predominantly white town in Mississippi where the KKK still roamed is a completely different world to the one I know.  With that in mind I think Grisham handled it rather well.

Ultimately, A Time to Kill is the best Grisham fiction novel I’ve read thus far, but it still fell short of the lofty expectations I had for it, given its reputation and the premise.  Now, which Grisham book should I tackle next?

3.75 out of 5!

PS: I first had a look at A Time to Kill when I was in a Border’s book store (back when they still existed in Australia) and read the author’s introduction, where Grisham discusses his fondness of his debut novel.  It took him three years to complete it while still working as a lawyer (an amazing feat in itself), but didn’t gain success until The Firm became a bestseller.  It’s an inspirational story I continue to use to push myself down the writer’s path.

PPS: I can’t believe I still haven’t seen the 1996 movie based on the book.  Might be my Matthew McConaughey aversion.  I’ll have to check it out.

Shanghai Brunch at Azul

July 28, 2011 in China, Food, Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

We’re almost at the end of my China series and I’ve saved one of the best for last.  For our final meal in Shanghai we went to a stylish Spanish/Peruvian tapas joint called Azul in the Xuhui district in southwest Shanghai.

Azul is very popular with expats who enjoy a lazy brunch on the weekend.  The bottom floor looks more like a tapas bar and the upper floor (where we ate) resembles more of a restaurant.  They have one of these big enticing menus that offer an assortment of delightful Spanish fusion dishes and beverages which you can order as part of a three-course brunch set + drink.

If you zoom in real close you can read what's on the menu!

The prices are not considered cheap for locals but they are affordable compared to overseas prices (120RMB for 2 courses and 160RMB for 3).

Here’s what we ordered (with pics!)

(click on ‘more…’ to see!)

Read the rest of this entry →

The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

[Update: 12 November 2011 — Anh Do’s new book, ‘The Littlest Refugee’ is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book’s publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay’s sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I’m sure any writer in Do’s position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ‘To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.