Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Monstrous Fun...

Ever have one of those days? Monster Dionysus works for the cryptobiological containment department of animal control. He captures mythological and magical creatures along with his partner, Chester, a paper gnome (who’s actually from another dimension). Monster’s bad day starts when he gets a call about a Yeti who’s wreaking havoc in a supermarket (actually the big guy is eating ice cream). Monster rescues Judy, an employee at the store, from the ravenous snow giant, and assumes his job is done. But in A. Lee Martinez’s comic novel, Monster, it doesn’t end there. Suddenly, a host of magical creatures seems to follow Judy everywhere, and wreak havoc not only with her life, but with Monster’s as well.

Most humans in Monster’s world forget their encounters with the fantastic immediately, and have to be reminded about what happened to them; apparently, our brains can’t handle the reality of magic. So Monster has to keep telling Judy about all the supernatural events that surround her. As more & more creatures appear, he has to figure out why Judy seems to be the epicenter of all these fantastic events. He also has to deal with the mysterious Lotus, who is turning people into cats, and seems to know what’s going on – and may have a plan of her own. And let’s not forget Monster’s girlfriend from hell – who really is from hell, who is also complicating matters for our hero.

Humorous dialogue and situations combine with the fantasy and action elements, which makes for an enjoyable, fast-paced read. The author’s style is reminiscent of Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams, and if you're a fan of those authors, you'll love Martinez's work as well. He maintains a light tone throughout this engaging, well-paced book, and creates some memorable, engaging characters. If you like fantasy or science-fiction on the lighter side, then Monster is highly recommended. Martinez has written several other books, including a comic horror story entitled Gil’s All Fright Diner and a sci-fi/hardboiled detective pastiche called The Automatic Detective, and they’re worth checking out as well.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Apes "Rise" to the occasion

It’s always a bit dangerous to remake or rework a classic movie.  You run the risk of alienating the very audience for whom the film is produced. Just ask Tim Burton, whose “re-imagining” of Planet of the Apes from 2001 is not well-regarded by fans. While the film had impressive special effects, the plot was weak, and the changes made to the original story were not well received.  The current trend is called a “reboot” which updates a film series or character for a new generation ; for example, Batman in 2005’s Batman Begins or James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his serum on chimpanzees.  One of his test subjects goes on a rampage, because she believes her baby is in danger.  The mother is killed, and Will takes home the baby, and raises him. Will’s father, Charles (John Lithgow), an Alzheimer’s sufferer, befriends the chimp, and they name him Caesar. Will secretly gives his father the serum, and he begins to improve. Meanwhile, Caesar shows signs of heightened intelligence; his mother has passed on the serum’s improvements genetically.

Unfortunately, the effects of the serum on Will’s father are temporary. When a neighbor (due to a misunderstanding) threatens Charles, Caesar attacks the man, and is confined to a primate facility. The apes there are abused by the owner’s son; Caesar forms a bond with his fellow prisoners, and plots an escape. Meanwhile, Will is working on a more advanced form of the serum, and continuing his tests. However, there may be a dark side effect to his discovery .

As Will and his boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) debate ending the research, Caesar and his ape brethren escape the facility, and run wild. Will races to save Caesar’s life, as the apes go on the rampage. The film is well paced and exciting; director Rupert Wyatt takes his time developing the story, and the ape sequences are amazing. The effects work by Weta Digital (Peter Jackson’s company) is fantastic. Motion capture was used to create the ape characters, and Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films) is wonderful as Caesar.

Fans will have fun spotting the many references to the original film; visually, in dialogue and in character names. The clever script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver pays homage to the prior “Apes” movies, but creates a new mythology of its own. Franco is effective as Will; Lithgow is excellent as Charles; there are also good supporting performances from Brian Cox, Frida Pinto, Tyler Labine and Tom Felton (who portrayed Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films). If you’re a fan of the “Apes” series, you’ll really enjoy this re-working of the classic saga. If you’re a newcomer to the series, it’s a solid science-fiction film.  20th Century Fox has come up with their 2nd successful reboot of a franchise during this summer movie season (the other being X-Men: First Class). Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Source Code: A smart sci-fi thriller

I’m always happy to discover a movie that transcends its genre, and is entertaining as well. Source Code (2011) is a mind-bending, well made science-fiction film that delivers on its interesting premise. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago, but is unsure about how he got there. A woman sitting across from him appears to know him, and chats with him, but keeps calling him by a different name. When he glances at his reflection, he sees someone else’s face. Suddenly, the train explodes, and he wakes up inside a small capsule, facing a video screen.

He’s disoriented, as the last thing he really remembers is being a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. An Air Force officer on the screen tells him he’s on a mission to find the terrorist who blew up the train. The military believes another, larger attack by the same person or group is imminent, and they need to find them before they carry out their plan. Stevens is told he is part of a project that can send subjects back to an eight minute window in the past; Stevens has that long to figure out the terrorist’s identity; he cannot change what has already occurred, but he can gather the information needed and return to the present.

As he is sent back additional times, we learn more about the mystery of how he got where he is, and why the “Source Code” project is so important. It’s part mystery, part science fiction and part action thriller. As he is sent back again & again, Stevens forms a bond with Christina (Michele Monaghan), the passenger that he is sitting with, but he’s told he can’t save her, because she is already dead. He needs to focus on identifying the terrorist, and saving lives in a future attack. But Stevens begins to question his mission, and if the past can’t be changed after all.

That’s the essence of this intriguing film, that recalls the best of TV’s Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits: two series that told thought-provoking stories that focused on well-drawn characters and their reactions to the fantastic events around them. Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones, who also helmed the 2009 film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, another interesting sci-fi film, which is also well worth viewing. He's crafted a smart, stylish sci-fi thriller along with writer Ben Ripley.

The cast is excellent, with Gyllenhaal just right as Stevens, who wants to do the right thing, but keeps getting thwarted by the rules of time and space. Vera Farmiga offers solid support as Goodwin, the military contact that helps him journey to the past. Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) is appropriately prickly as the head of the Source Code project, and Monaghan is good as the woman who Stevens wants to save so badly, he may sacrifice everything to do so. Trivia fans, take note: watch the credits for the actor who portrays Gyllenhaal’s father in a voice cameo; it’s a nice nod to a well-regarded sci-fi series of the past. Another note; director Jones is the son of singer David Bowie.

Check out  Source Code: it’s a pleasant surprise in a genre that too often releases mediocre films that don’t stay with you after they end; this one will. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.