Book Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card

October 23, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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After being thoroughly dissatisfied with last year’s Ender’s Game (review here), the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 military sci-fi novel, I was advised to give the source material a try, with assurances that it will be “much much better.”

Well, I finally had a chance to get around to it. The book is indeed better than the novel — I don’t think anyone disputes that — though I must admit that I don’t quite get why so many people love the book to death. In a fascinating introduction to the book written in 1991, Card acknowledges that Ender’s Game divided readers, but many of those who loved it thought it was a life-changing book that got them through some tough times.

For me, Ender’s Game was an interesting read but not a particularly impressive one. Perhaps I needed to have read it when I was a child, or at least much closer to Ender’s age than I am today, or maybe I’m just not quite on the same wavelength as Card (I suspect it is a bit of both). Either way, while I was engaged by the book I don’t think the story ultimately resonated with me the way it has with countless others.

Like the movie adaptation I watched last year, Ender’s Game is set in a future where humanity is engaged in a protracted war with insect-like aliens known as “buggers”. The buggers attacked Earth, causing catastrophic damage, but mankind was saved when a brilliant pilot by the name of Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the enemy fleet, earning humans a short term victory. Now, the International Fleet is recruiting gifted children in the hopes of training them up to become future saviours, and Ender Wiggin is selected to enter Battle School for training, where he quickly excels to become humanity’s best and last hope.

Reading the book, I understood why the film adaptation took so long to be realized. Apart from the special effects that were needed, the adaptation was made difficult because Ender is so young at the beginning of the book (7 years old) and is just 11 by the time the book ends.

To make the adaptation work, The filmmakers made Ender much older (Asa Butterfield was already about 15 when they shot the film) and dramatically condensed Ender’s Time at Battle School. Key characters such as Ender’s sister Valentine and his brother Peter were basically written out of the film completely. Unfortunately, these changes gutted the film, and other aspects could not do enough to compensate.

On the other hand, I was surprised that the book failed to address some of my biggest issues with the movie. I thought the film did a horrendous job in conveying what the kids were doing in the Battle Rooms, which frustrated me because I had no idea what they were doing or trying to accomplish. But now, I realise it’s because the book isn’t exactly clear either. You get bits and pieces, like how to win a game and how to disarm opponents, etc, but there are still so many missing slabs that you never feel like you know enough to be truly immersed in their world.

The other major problem is that the entire premise of using child geniuses to fight a war is a shaky one. I bought into it after having Card repeatedly beat into my head that Ender and his cohort are the best the entire world has to offer, as well as numerous reminders from the characters that these are not “normal” children. But I can certainly understand why some readers just couldn’t swallow the story.

My issue was less with the premise and more with the actions of the children, in particular the Wiggins trio of Ender, Valentine and Peter. Even when I accept that they are extraordinary children I still have difficulty believing many of the things they are capable of. I guess that is why I believe I would have received the book very differently had I read it as a child.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. For starters, the central idea itself is quite brilliant, and Card does not waste the golden opportunity to make some astute observations about human nature and the way we perceive children.

Secondly, Card’s writing is strong and confident, such that you tend to not question (at least not immediately) the plausibility of his narrative. There is an enviable clarity and simplicity to his voice and style; even though the sci-fi terms can sometimes get a little technical, Card appears to have the uncanny ability to always explain things in the most straightforward manner.

Thirdly, Card does an excellent job of developing Ender’s character, which is not easy considering that he is not a normal child nor your typical protagonist. Yet, Card makes us care about Ender and empathize with his plight. The book is at its most engaging — by far — when Ender is put through one grueling challenge after another and is pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, while trying to cope with the stresses of training as well as the jealousy and prejudice of his fellow cadets. Notwithstanding how unlikely the situations are, there is an air of genuineness about the interactions between the characters.

Overall, I can’t say I was fully satisfied with Ender’s Game, even though there were sections I either really enjoyed or thought were executed with impressive skill and creativity. I think the book ends on an apt note, so I have no interest in checking out any of its sequels.

3.5/5

Movie Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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If I had gone into Dracula Untold knowing only of the horrendous reviews I had glanced, I probably would have really enjoyed it and thought that critics were completely overreacting. However, I had also received several positive endorsements from friends, who said the film is nowhere near that bad and was actually a perfectly acceptable dark fantasy reimagining/mashing of a classic story and a historical legend. In the end, my impression of Dracula Untold lies somewhere in the middle — it definitely is not as bad as the reviews say, though on the other hand I had so many issues with it I found it difficult to conclude that it is any more than just a passable effort.

In essence, Dracula Untold is a superhero movie. We have a protagonist who obtains super powers beyond his imagination, but of course the powers comes at a very steep price. Here, Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a hero who turns himself into Superman…oops,  I mean vampire (with the help of Games of Thrones‘s Charles Dance) – with super strength, speed, healing capabilities and the ability to fly – in order to save his family and his people from the nasty draconian Turks led by his evil “brother” Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, whom I coincidentally often mistake for Evans for some inexplicable reason). The problem, of course, is that he wants to drink human blood and has a weakness for direct sunlight and silver.One of the key strengths of Dracula Untold lies in Vlad’s internal struggle. Instead of the historical villain who loved to impale his victims, Vlad is depicted as an astonishingly capable warrior who is righteous in everything he does — even when he is impaling people. He is an all-round family man who dearly loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), which is why he chose to become a monster to protect them, even though he’ll constantly want to drink their blood. First time feature director Gary Shore does a solid job of milking this inner conflict so that we might care about our protagonist. Kudos also to Evans for putting in as good of a performance as one could have hoped in a role like this.

Further, while the film is not scary at all, there is a gloomy mood that works well with the film’s themes. The action sequences are surprisingly exhilarating, in the way that superhero flicks can be when executed right. Admittedly, watching Dracula turn into bats and take on thousands of soldiers by his lonesome is pretty cool, even if you sometimes feel like you’re watching a video game.

Up to this point, Dracula Untold just about ticks all the right boxes for an enjoyable Hollywood guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued with so many gaps in logic and physics and missing or puzzling details that I found myself asking, “Did that really just happen?” more than a couple of times (see below this review for some slightly spoilery examples). Granted, most Hollywood flicks suffer from similar problems, but the ones here are so glaring and sloppy that they snapped me out of the film’s flow. Some of the flaws are less abhorrent once you realize that they are apparently planning a sequel — which also partly explains the stupid ending — though I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of most of these mysteries.

Apart from Vlad, there are also no other characters to give a crap about. Gadon’s loving wife is sadly a thankless character who doesn’t do much except whinge and cry and wait to be rescued, and the son is more or less a prop. Vlad also has a couple of loyal right-hand men whom we don’t even get to know before they die, but then are expected to care. And there’s this weird “servant” dude who pops out of nowhere to act creepy but we have no idea who he is, where he came from or what his motivations are.

In all, Dracula Untold flashed glimpses of promise. The premise itself is not bad, the lead star is solid and the action sequences are relatively exciting. It’s also, thankfully, a very tightly-packed 92-minutes that never feels boring. At the end of the day, I’d rank it above abominations like I, Frankenstein and below more fun, less serious efforts like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

2.75 stars out of 5

(SPOILER ALERT) Here are some of the questions I asked myself while watching Dracula Untold:

- Is Charles Dance’s vampire restricted to living in that cave or just at night? If he’s always stuck in there then where do all the bones come from? Why would so many people go to extreme lengths to get into that cave so they could be eaten? Why is he stuck there and Vlad can roam around freely? And if Vlad “sets him free” by replacing him in the end, then why can Vlad still go wherever he wants?
- Doesn’t Charles Dance’s vampire want to seek revenge against the one who made him that way? What’s he doing still following Vlad around — 600 years later? What the heck are these “games” he’s talking about?
- Why could Vlad not save Mirena when she fell off the cliff when he can fly she she was just free-falling? He can fly so fast he basically teleports, and he’s likely falling quicker because of his greater mass!
- So did he get to her in time or what? If so, why is she dead? If not, why did she not splatter and why could she still talk so much?
- How did Vlad’s kid get from the top of the cliff onto a horse at the bottom of the cliff basically during the time it took for his mother to fall to her death?
- So Mirena reincarnated into Mina 600 years later? Is that what they’re saying? Seriously?
- Is Vlad more powerful than the other vampires he created? Why? Why does he look so much better than them? Why didn’t he look like Charles Dance even though he “replaced” him? Why can he cover the sky with clouds? And how can he (and Charles Dance) be walking around in daylight at the end of the film?
- Why am I thinking so much about things that don’t make sense in this movie?

Sant-AnGeLo (Osaka)

October 23, 2014 in Food, Japan, Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

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So I recently went to Osaka on a short family trip. Meals were scarce, so we were sure to book ahead, and one of the recommendations we decided to try out was Sant-AnGeLo, allegedly one of the best Italian joints in the city.

It took us a bit of time to find the place, which is situated inside one of the food alleys connected to Namba Parks (near the very end of the strip). It has a nice Italian atmosphere, with traditional tablecloths and plates on the walls. They do have English menus so there’s no need to panic, and the waiters seem to be able to communicate in English if your Japanese isn’t up the scratch.

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Their menu is fairly extensive, with a nice range of traditional pizzas and pastas. With four adults, we decided to go with two pizzas and two pastas. Based on the recommendations of the waiters, we went with these:

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Quattro Formaggi, basically a “four cheese” pizza that comes with gorgonzola, mozzarella, taleggio, parmigiano. 

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The Pescatore, a seafood pizza with a tomato base

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The Bolognese

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The Carbonara

The food may look unspectacular but it was truly awesome. The pizza crust is hand made and wood fired, and the cheese seems like it’s good quality stuff. It’s hard for me to rank one pizza above the other because they were both so good in their own way, with the Quattro Formaggi full of cheesy flavour and the Pescatore so flavoursome and deluxe. The pastas were also deceptive tasty, especially the tangy bolognese, which the kids absolutely loved. The carbonara was also not too creamy and had a little bit of an extra zing.

For dessert we tried the tiramisu, but it was so enticing that we gobbled it up before I had the chance to take a photo.

In all, it was a splendid experience. Great atmosphere, friendly and speedy service and delicious, traditional Italian cuisine. Would love to come back if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

8.5/10

Details

Sant-AnGeLo (サンタ・アンジェロ)

Website (Japanese): http://www.anjou.co.jp/shop/angelo/index.html (pizza menu third tab, pasta/dessert menu fourth tab)

Address: 5-1-60 Nanba, Chuo Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture (walking distance from Namba stations)

Phone: +81 (0)6-6644-2855

Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30-14:00, 17:30-22:00; Sat-Sun 11:30-22:00

Price: about 1,000 yen per person for lunch, 2,500 yen per person for dinner

SA

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

October 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I honestly had no idea what to expect when I rushed to see Gone Girl, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel directed by the legendary David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Seven). The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, but through word-of-mouth I also learned that many who had read the book first found the film underwhelming.

As a huge fan of the book, I can’t say that surprises me. A significant part of Gone Girl’s allure stems from its delicious twists and turns, and knowing exactly how things will turn out will obviously dampen the experience. There’s just no way around it. No one would be able to enjoy The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense as much if the twists in those films had been spoiled in advance either.

With that in mind, I thought Gone Girl was brilliant. I had been curious to see how Fincher would handle the multi-layered material, the difficult themes, the portrayal of the main characters and the controversial ending — and he delivered about as well as I could have imagined, with a steady, confident, yet understated control that captures the tones and essence of Flynn’s writing.

Keeping in line with my usual effort to be as spoiler-free as I can, I thought adapting Gone Girl to the screen would have been a nightmare because of its multiple view points, shifts in time, and the clever use of a diary plot device. I was therefore surprised at how seemingly straightforward it was for Fincher and Flynn, who adapted her own novel, to make everything work so well. The result was a film that followed the novel — both in plot and progression — very closely, so much so that I can’t think of any salient things that didn’t make the jump successfully.

If you’ve seem the trailer or heard about the film in passing you’ll know the story is about a beautiful woman (Rosamund Pike) who goes missing in a small town and her husband (Ben Affleck) becoming the prime suspect for her murder because he’s not acting the way a loving husband would. It sounds like such a simple, cliched premise, and yet the amazing thing about Gone Girl is that it explodes and snowballs into so much more, asking complex questions about relationships, marriage, parents, children, sacrifice, compromise, honesty, sexual politics, the economy, the public psyche and role of the media. I could probably write an entire essay about all the things about the book/film that fascinate me, but that would involve dreaded spoilers, and I can’t possibly have that. What’s relevant is that all these questions from the movie are also asked in the film, and that’s what kept me interested and on the edge of my seat.

I had mixed feelings when I heard about the casting. I love Ben Affleck as a director, but as some of you may know, I’m not the biggest fan of his acting. As the douchey Nick Dunne, however, Affleck has found a role that was custom made for him, and he absolutely blitzes it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call it the best performance of his entire career. I’m not encouraging award voters to jump on Affleck’s bandwagon, but if they did I would resent it a lot less than when they went nuts for Matthew McConaughey.

As Affleck’s other half, Rosamund Pike is a low-key choice for Amy Dunne considering all the other big names that were being rumored for the role at the time. I didn’t love her performance at the beginning, but there were reasons for the way she acted the way she did, and by the end of the film I was sold.

The supporting cast was also very strong. When I first heard Neil Patrick Harris was involved I was still picturing him as his alter ego in Harold & Kumar, so I thought he would be cast as Nick’s flamboyant lawyer Tanner Bolt. Instead, he was fantastic as Amy’s wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend Desi, and the even bigger shock was that Tyler Perry (yes, Tyler Perry!) was awesome as Tanner Bolt. Those casting choices completely bowled me over.

I was also impressed with the performances in two supporting female roles — Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, and Kim Dickens as lead detective Rhonda Boney. Both extremely important characters who served their functions well without stealing the show from the stars of the show.

The film is quite long at 149 minutes and occasionally feels like it, especially towards the end as the story searches for the perfect point to end on. But Fincher’s pacing is superb, and his ability to manage the subtle shifts in the film’s tone throughout all its twists and turns — it’s sometimes drama, sometimes black comedy, sometimes horror — is what glues the story together. A lesser director might have turned Gone Girl into a clunky mess, but Fincher gets it just right.

The ending is something I was curious to see because apparently Flynn had “rewritten” it for the big screen, though the changes are more artificial than substantial. I’m not disappointed, however, because I loved the book’s chilling ending.

Having said all that, I’m sure I am less enthusiastic about the movie than I would have been had I not read the book first. It helps that I have a terrible memory and that I read it more than a year ago, but like I said, there’s just no way around it. I’d say that the book is better at keeping the twists hidden while the movie can struggle to conceal what’s coming, though that’s a natural advantage given that readers can be manipulated easier on the page than on the screen. Still, I would recommend those who have seen the movie to give the book a try, and vice versa, because the two present two rather different, but equally rewarding experiences.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

October 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5

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