Book Review: ‘Catching Fire’ by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

As soon as I finished the first book, The Hunger Games, I moved straight into the second of the series, Catching Fire.

I said in my review of The Hunger Games that my impression of it may have been tainted by the fact that had watched the film version first and had also watched Japan’s Battle Royale, which has a similar premise.

Catching Fire didn’t have to face such problems. I was sceptical at first because the core of the story is the Hunger Games itself, and I wondered how Collins could possibly squeeze out two more books that didn’t simply repeat what happened in the first. After all (spoiler for the first book ahead), didn’t Katniss and Peter win the darn thing already?

Well, those concerns were unfounded. In fact, Catching Fire completely breaks free of the parameters set by the first book and takes the series to a whole new level.

How does Collins do this? Well, for starters, she ups the ante on just about everything that made the first book good. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, but Collins finds a clever way to make the games “fresh”, from the manner in which the tributes are selected to the fascinating new characters and the innovative new battleground. Even the returning characters are given new angles as more is gradually revealed about each of them.

Collins also intensifies the relationships Katniss has with the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale, adding more tension to the love triangle. It wasn’t my thing but could be appreciated my some readers.

The best part about it was how the story played out with a Harry Potter-esque mystery that does not get revealed until the very end. Some of it was rather predictable but I still came away impressed. The biggest compliment I can pay to the book is that it is not only better than The Hunger Games but also improves it by providing added context.

Of course, Collins still manages to infuse that addictive quality of her narrative style into the book as well. I breezed through this book by reading it any spare minute I had, and sometimes even when I’m not supposed to have the time. It’s not hard when every chapter ends on a mini cliffhanger and the writing is so easy to read.

I do, however, have two major complaints with Catching Fire. The first is that certain parts of the book felt a little drawn out, while others felt too condensed. Occasionally I got the feeling that there was an imbalance in the storytelling that needed to be addressed. The second complaint is how Collins botched the ending. After setting up the mystery so well all the way through, the book trips and falls flat on its face at the very end with an extremely rushed “unveil” and ends on a cliffhanger. The payoff after going through such an exhilarating ride turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing.

That said, it has forced me to jump immediately into the third and final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, which I hope to finish and review soon.

4 out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 5)

June 28, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

I have always been a fan of the Harold and Kumar series despite its tendency to be very hit-and-miss. And you really can’t go wrong with any film that features Neil Patrick Harris.

In this third installment, Harold (John Cho) has married his dream girl Maria (from the first film) and works on Wall Street. Kumar (Kal Penn) is still the same old stoner who failed to become a doctor after flunking a drug test. It’s Christmas, and of course, the dynamic duo team up for one more wild adventure. This time, it’s finding a Christmas tree.

To be honest, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is perhaps the lamest of the trilogy. It doesn’t quite have the freshness of White Castle or the outrageousness of Guantanamo Bay. This is a “family” film, so to speak. But you know what? It’s still freaking funny a lot of the time.

As usual, there are some dud jokes thrown in there, but the good thing about there having been two earlier films is that you know Harold and Kumar’s personalities so well now that the laughs all come fairly easily.

Great to see Cho and Penn back in awesome form. Penn, in particular, had to resign from his post in the Obama administration to take the role, and there is a cracker of a joke about that in the movie. Needless to say, Neil Patrick Harris, who is supposed to have been fatally wounded in the second film, is back, and in peak condition. The always intimidating Danny Trejo (I last saw him in Machete…actually, in the PS3 game, The Fight) is also pretty good as Maria’s dad.

3D Christmas will probably go down as the weakest film in the series but fans of the two stoners will no doubt still be able to find plenty of amusement from it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Haywire (2011)

Okay, so Steve Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Oceans Eleven and Contagion is a pretty big deal. No wonder he managed to get guys like Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Michael Fassbender to be in an action flick headed by an MMA star, Gina Carano.

Basically, Carano is a government agent who gets set up. Bad idea, because she knows how to kick some serious male ass. The story is a little convoluted for my liking but part of it has to do with Soderbergh’s distinctive style. Whenever the film gets into the fight scenes, however, the story is happy to take a back seat.

I don’t know much about Carano and I don’t care much for MMA, but I suppose the action in Haywire is pretty cool, somewhat Bourne-like in its pace, brutality and supposed realism, except with a less shaky camera and an actress that really knows what she is doing when she’s bouncing off walls, bashing heads in and choking people into submission. As a thespian though, I think Carano still has some work to do. Not horrible by any means, but could be better.

At the end of the day, Haywire is a decent action flick – but it just won’t be a very memorable one.

3 stars out of 5

Hesher (2011)

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tremendous talent and versatility. And there’s no one quite like him in Hollywood. I was recommended Hesher by a bunch of people and I had a ball with it. The big surprise is that the screenplay was co-written by Aussie David Michod, the genius behind one of the best films from last year, Animal Kingdom.

It’s a highly-random, WTF kind of movie about this dude, Hesher (played by Gordon-Levitt), who intrudes the life of a weird little boy called TJ. He’s dirty and scruffy, walks around bare-chested, has awesome tattoos, smokes a lot, and does heaps of crazy and random things. To be honest, he doesn’t do a lot, and the things he does don’t always make sense. He’s just…there.

It’s really hard to describe what this movie is about or why it is so compelling to watch. The comedy in it is jet black. It’s not for everyone but I laughed out loud frequently and ferociously. Unbelievably, it has Natalie Portman in it. And she’s funny too, in a strange kind of way.

Towards the end, the movie moves ever so slightly from its path of irreverence to toss in some unexpected poignancy. It was something I had dreaded but surprisingly, it worked, in a Hesher kind of way. It’s not the kind of movie I would put in any “best of the year” lists, but it’s one I could definitely see becoming a cult classic.

4 stars out of 5

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

This was a film that divided critics and viewers alike. Some thought it was a heartfelt tribute to those who lost loved ones in 9/11. Others thought it was a pretentious, manipulating tear-jerker that failed to hit the mark.

I belonged to the latter.

The idea, based on a 2005 book of the same name, is not bad. A kid (Thomas Horn – who, amazingly, became an actor after competing on Jeopardy) loses his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11. He finds a key in his father’s belongings and sets out on scavenger hunt through the five boroughs of NYC to find out what it opens, meeting a bunch of people along the way.

For starters, you need to be able to buy into the whole premise about there being something magical about this kid’s adventure. I didn’t have a problem with that. What I had a massive problem with was the kid, who comes across as someone who will grow up into one of the most annoying and obnoxious adults on the planet. I’m not entirely sure if it is the character or the performance, but it’s probably a lot of both.

For me, the whole thing just felt wrong. I didn’t find it entertaining or exciting. I found it desperately trying to elicit an emotional response, one that I could not squeeze out. I was surprised, because the director, Stephen Daldry, was previously at the helm of The Reader, which had its flaws but was on the whole pretty good.

The film was not poorly made, but personally, I hated it. It must be one of the worst Best Picture nominees at the Oscars – ever.

1.75 stars out of 5

Book Review: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

June 26, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Let’s face it, it was only going to be a matter of time before I set out to devour The Hunger Games, the next big thing for young adults after Twilight and Harry Potter.

The first thing I will say is that I watched the film version first (review here). I also followed that up with a viewing of the eerily similar Battle Royale (review here), which is based on the cult classic novel by Japan’s Koushun Takami. Accordingly, it needs to be kept in mind that my impression of the book has been somewhat tainted by what I already knew going in.

Hence, if I had to sum up The Hunger Games in two words it would have to be “pretty good.” For the most part, it is well-written and exciting, but lacks the “wow” factor I had been hoping for. Again, a large part of that might be because I already knew everything that was going to happen.

For those needing a brief outline, it’s about a post-apocalyptic North America that has been split into 12 districts, all of which are ruled by the oppressive central government known as the Capitol. Every year, to remind the masses of their powerlessness, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games, where one teen of each sex from every district is thrust into a televised battle to the death where there can only be one victor. The story follows Katniss Everdeen, a feisty girl from the impoverished District 12 who is pretty handy with a bow and arrow.

The film version, barring a few minor details and changes, essentially covered everything and in some cases improved on the book. So if you’ve already seen the movie, I’m not sure there is a whole lot to be gained from reading the book as well in terms of discovering new things.

That is not to say, of course, that reading The Hunger Games was not a pleasurable experience. While Collins is not on the level of say JK Rowling when it comes to storytelling, she is certainly much much better than Stephenie Meyer. Collins’ style is direct and to-the-point, plus she has a knack for action sequences. Her descriptions could be stronger but at least they are not unnecessary or over-the-top. The initial chapters setting up the world and the games are excellent.

This is a very easy-to-read young adult book that uses a straightforward, page-turning-inducing narrative (in which chapters often ended on cliffhangers) where the allegorical undertones are hinted but never fully explored. Personally, I liked it that way.

There was also a little bit of romance but thankfully it steered clear of the mushiness of Twilight. Importantly, here the girl isn’t just someone looking for love and nothing else (Bella Swan, cough cough), but is actually a strong character capable of holding her own against a bunch of badasses. And it’s nice to see the boy being the damsel in distress for once.

In all, this was a stellar start to a trilogy, though I must say not entirely worthy of the praise heaped onto it, especially considering how similar the concept is to Battle Royale, which was published back in 1999. Having now read Catching Fire, the second book of the series (review coming soon), I can say that the story really does begin to expand and grow into something truly special. But as a standalone piece of fiction for which I have already seen the film version I can only give it…

3.25 out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 4)

June 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Puss in Boots (2011)

Like just about everyone else, I laughed at the adorable cat from the Shrek movies the first time I him on screen. He was a fantastic character — so undeniably cute but also extremely self-assured and a bit of a ladies man. The potential for laughs was high.

And so it was not unexpected that the cat, Puss in Boots, got his own spin-off movie given that the Shrek franchise has been beaten to death with repetition. I knew before I watched this film that it was going to have a lot of obstacles to overcome – after all, a little bit of the cat is sweet, but will too much of him be a bore?

Fortunately, while it was nothing special or groundbreaking, Puss in Boots was not a failure. It pulled all the kitty jokes out of the bag in a witty, light-hearted manner that is pleasing to both kids and adults alike, and I found myself laughing out loud to a lot of them. Antonio Banderas, who voices Puss, is charming as the surprisingly kind-hearted hero, and Salma Hayek was also solid as love interest Kitty Softpaws. Very different though to the first time these two were on screen together in Desperado, the film that launched Hayek’s career.

Being a spin-off film, Puss in Boots felt like it was very much part of the Shrek universe, which I guess is both a good and bad thing. There is that sense of familiarity, which is good, but also the tendency to feel a lack of freshness, which is bad. Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself with this one, though I can’t see there being a sequel.

3.25 stars out of 5

Final Destination 5 (2D) (2011)

Hang on a second…didn’t they kill off this franchise already? I could have sworn that the gimmicky and fairly abysmal The Final Destination (3D) was the last one. After all, it was THE final destination.

As it turned out, there was a little life left. The fifth film of the series was essentially more of the same, and of course, it was also in 3D (which I avoided like the plague). If you like watching people die in an assortment of gruesome and creative ways, then you might still find some enjoyment in this one. But otherwise, stay away.

For me, it was a little “meh”, to be honest. The franchise has become a one trick pony in recent years – a bunch of people survive something they should have died in, and death comes back to pick them off, one by one. As usual, the initial “incident” is done quite spectacularly (in this one it’s a bridge collapse…oops, did I spoil anything?), and it then becomes a guessing game of who will go next, and how. I admit, there is some decent tension, and it can be fun guessing the manner in which the person will die while ignoring all the red herrings. But if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen them all.

Kudos for placing the characters in a work environment this time and finally taking out of high school, and credit to the writers for coming up with a clever ending (I won’t spoil this one, but it’s not bad). Apart from that there’s not much separating this one from the rest.

2 stars out of 5

What’s Your Number (2011)

This movie was kinda gross. A girl (Anna Faris) realizes she has had twice as many sexual partners as the average person and decides to track down her ex-boyfriends with the intention of marrying one of them. Her neighbour (Chris Evans) is a douchebag who is into one night stands and is constantly running away from women he has just slept with. She agrees to help him and he agrees to help her. You can guess the rest.

What’s Your Number does have the tiniest bit of charm because Faris is sharp and witty (as usual, though she seems to have settled into this stereotype where all her performances turn out similar) but the characters are not particularly likable and the jokes are mostly flat and predictable. And you know right from the start how things will end up.

Is it worse than the average rom-com that gets churned out these days? Not really. Despite arising out of a fresh idea, in reality it’s just more of the same. I can’t think of much else to say.

2 stars out of 5

Johnny English Reborn (2011)

I will probably lose all credibility for this, and perhaps rightly so, but I am being dead serious when I say I enjoyed Johnny English Reborn.

Hear me out. When I saw snippets of the original Johnny English film I cringed and switched it off. When I saw the trailer for this film, I told myself it was going to be the worst movie ever.

And yet when I watched it (don’t ask me how or why), I laughed. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure, and you probably need to be in the right mood for it. But I laughed. I found it funny. Rowan Atkinson was funny. So was Daniel Kaluuya, who plays bumbling junior agent Colin Tucker. And Gillian Anderson is always good to have around.

This is a spy spoof but the obvious spoof parts are not necessarily what generate the laughs. Make no mistake, this was a hit and miss film, and there were plenty of misses, but there were also some good jokes. Simple as that.

3.5 stars out of 5

Prometheus Viral Videos and Websites

June 21, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews, Websites by pacejmiller

The graphic that pops up after the credits in Prometheus

No, it’s not going to explain any of the gazillions of unexplained questions from Prometheus, the one film I think I might remember more than any other this year (given that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t out yet) — but it does explain why they got Guy Pearce to play a really really old man.

As it turned out, 20th Century Fox released a bunch of viral videos and websites for Prometheus. I know they want you to think they’ll help you understand the film better, but to be honest I don’t think they necessarily explain anything. Still, I have to admit they are intriguing.

The first one is Guy Pearce as a young Peter Weyland speaking at TED2023, which explains the origins of the Prometheus mission depicted in the film.

The second clip is one introducing David, the android played by Michael Fassbender. It’s my favourite.

The third is one of Noomi Rapace’s character Elizabeth Shaw asking for a chance to go on the space mission.

And here are the viral websites.  All of them, especially the last one, don’t have much, but it’s still interesting to see the amount of effort they’ve put into building a narrative to promote the film.