Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saddle Up. The Coen Brothers Take On The Old West

Three and a half stars

Saddle up. The Coen Brothers are back in town. This time they are heading off to the old west for a re-make of ‘True Grit’, the John Wayne classic. The story involves a young girl named Mattie (Hailee Steinfield) as she is grieving for her murdered father. Well, maybe grieving isn’t quite the word. This girl has grit, and she wants revenge for her father’s murder. She wants to see Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) punished for her father’s murder. She wants him brought to justice. So, she hires Rooser Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, being well, Jeff Bridges) to track down this man Chaney and bring him to justice. Meanwhile she also meets, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also trying to track down Chaney because he murdered a senator in Texas. All in all, this Chaney fellow sounds like a bad dude. And in the old West, you get hanged if you mess around in the wrong way.

This film has all the quirkiness you expect from a Coen Brothers film. Hailee Steinfield is perfect as Mattie. She doesn’t flinch at all. She keeps looking straight ahead. An eye on the prize, as her mission is to bring Chaney to justice. Steinfield is this character. She is in every scene of this film. This is her first role. People mistake her for weak because she is a fourteen year old, though, throughout the film, she proves herself to be as strong willed as the other characters on the trail of Chaney. She is the quirky hero the Cohan Brothers love to have in their films.

Jeff Bridges plays a new version of the John Wayne role. When he looks at a dying man on the floor, he says “I can’t help you, son!” He rides his horse and he carries around that big gun, and aims it. You get the sense that the Coen Brothers are trying to adapt the novel as straight forward as possible. There are scenes in this movie that are wonderfully done. There are also scenes both crowd pleasing and not crowd pleasing. They try to keep the grittiness of the old west intact.

Bridges talks in a tone where he doesn’t flinch. He is on the mission alongside Mattie, trying to find Chaney. Matt Damon is alongside him. He does some fine acting as the less eccentric one on the trip. Mattie wants Chaney brought to justice badly. Chaney, though, isn’t that easy to come by. Bridges obviously goes full out, relishing his cowboy role.

You can tell the Coen Brothers are trying very hard to show their love for the western genre, like when the music plays when Mattie opens up her father’s processions and takes out an old western looking gun. Bridges is riding a horse, with Maddie, with the backdrop of a beautifully shot star studded background. The final act is beautifully shot. Some might think that the Coen Brothers are a little too quirky for the western genre. And in some ways, they are. They give a sense of humor to Bridges as he is the hired gunman on the trip. They try hard to keep the sense of a western alive. At times, it's hit or miss. Though, the Coen Brothers keep the story alive with their takes on the memorable characters.

I haven’t read the original novel, but one gets the sense that the Coen Brothers are truly adapting the novel. The feel of the film is that of a story that might have been written by an old western writer. I’m not sure it will win any Oscars, but I don’t think the Coen brothers made it for that reason. Old fashioned horses. Old fashioned guns. And an old fashioned law man and one determined teenage girl in the old west. The Coen brothers wanted to play cowboy. Shoot em up!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Where All The Phonies are Greek Gods

Percy Jackson is an angry kid with ADHD and dyslexia. He goes to a special school for kids with learning disabilities. Little does he know he has a very special reason for why he has learning disabilities, and we know that right off the bat, because this is a fantasy novel. And in a fantasy novel, every angry kid has a reason for the problems they have. Harry Potter’s not just an abused orphan. He’s a wizard. Percy Jackson isn’t just a kid with learning disabilities. He never knew his father. Do you want to take a guess of who his father is? Author Rick Riordan, fortunately, doesn’t do the wizard route, so you can check off the guess that’s Percy’s father is a famous wizard. Nor is he half vampire. His father is a Greek God. So, thus, Percy is whisked away to a camp of kids who are half bloods---the same title kids in the ‘Harry Potter’ books have when they have a muggle parent and a magical parent---so, basically kids who have a God parent and a human parent. So, basically Gods have kids with humans, and leave the humans to raise the kids. Ok, this series is the beginning to a series of young adult novels. The ‘Harry Potter’ crowd is clearly the intended audience. That being said, I enjoyed Rick Riordan’s sense of humor and adventure in his first book ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Theif’.

Soon after, Percy arrives at camp, having to leave his school after one of his teacher’s turns into a monster and tries to attack Percy, he spends time getting used to his new surroundings. The name of the camp is Camp Half-Blood, and it's a camp for kids who are half God. Thus, he also discovered a little later on that his best friend, Glover, is a protector called a Stayr, and there he meets a girl named Annabeth, who is the daughter of Athena. Soon, enough, Percy discovers he can breathe underwater, and thus is the son of Poseidon. Now, I’m not scholar in Greek mythology. Heck, I hardly made it through Greek and Roman literature in college. Riordan does a good job, though, of incorporating mythology in a way that kids will understand. Soon, Percy is accused of being the lightening thief, and he and his friends end up on the run. They have to go across country, because the entrance to the underworld is in a recording studio in Las Angles. That’s pretty quirky right there. Soon, Percy is accused of many things. Being a run away and being reported on in the news. He only has his two friends and his trusty new sword, Riptide, to keep his company.

Rick Riordan’s book is quirky and obviously written for a young audience. Though, the question I had been that isn’t it weird that the Gods had relationships with humans, and left them to raise the kids by themselves. Anyone who took Greek and Roman literature in college knows that Gods do interfere with human lives often. The Gods in Riordan’s universe are no different. Yet, Riordan does make his Gods very quirky. He has Gods as camp counselors. The certain Gods unlucky enough to be stuck at Camp Half-Blood are bitter. Of course, this idea of a camp for kids who are a bit magical sounds a little familiar to those who are regular readers of the magical school genre. Riordan, though, keeps a sense of humor through the book, and keeps the action regularly going, thus keeping the reader turning pages.

Though, it has to be asked. It’s kind of weird that a God would meet a human on the beach, and thus leave her pregnant. There’s an adult book somewhere in this. I had to wonder the logic of these Gods having kids with humans and than walking out. Does that make the Gods jerks? Hmmm, I guess even Gods have their faults. Just like wizards and magical folks have their faults in the fantasy genre that was spurred on by the success of books like Harry Potter. ‘Percy Jackson’ is a good page turner, and will keep your young ones reading.

Percy Jackson is an angry kid, with a bit of Holden Caulfield in him. He’s from New York City. He doesn’t like his mom’s live-in boyfriend. And isn’t that the appeal of the fantasy genre, anyway? That the explanation to your problems and bad situation is something out of this world? What’s more out of this world than Greek Gods or wizards? And it’s something all children would like to believe, I suppose. Your parents or mean live in guardians aren’t the cause of your problems. You don’t fit into the world because you happen to the spawn of Greek Gods and wizard folks. Cool.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sometimes The Spookiest Thing Your Doing Is What Your Doing Right Now

William Gibson’s latest novel, ‘Spook Country’ is about three people who are connected by the paranoia of the modern technological world and that feeling we get, like Hollis Henry, a former rock star, now a budding journalist who can’t seem to escape the Google search anyone can do on her. She sits in an airport and than she starts to get that creepy feeling she is being watched. Maybe the man she met is taking pictures of her behind her back? Maybe the security cameras are focusing on her? Maybe it’s all in her mind? Everywhere she goes, as she tries to start over as a journalist, the people she tries to interview just want to talk about what happened to that band they all loved in college, The Curfew. Not only is she stuck with the past of herself on a poster, she’s also working for a online magazine that may or may not exist called the Node, that is run by a guy named Bigend.

There are two other characters with problems in Gibson’s novel. Tito, meanwhile, from a Cuban-American family in New York City is assigned by his uncles to hand over I-Pods with sensitive information over to a mysterious group. Than there’s Milgrim, an Ativan addict being held prisoner by a operative named Brown. Gibson modestly succeeds holding these three stories together. They aren’t directly related; except that Brown has ties to Tito’s family. As usual, Gibson’s characters are all tied together by the technology they interact with. Even if this isn’t one of Gibson’s classics like ‘Necromancer,’ ‘Idrou’ or ‘Pattern Recognition’, there is something to be said for being the more inventive of those writing techno thrillers. What other writer, for example, would think of using I-Pods as a way to transfer information?

Node Magazine for example, is another hallmark of a Gibson novel. An advertising executive named Bigend, who appeared in Gibson’s last novel, ‘Pattern Recognition’, runs Node Magazine. Mysterious, rich and having power over media and advertising, he is a creepy figure who is investing in Node Magazine and is a creepy figure to Hollis, as she tries to make sense of what she is really doing. Hollis keeps having the feeling that this magazine she is writing for, because it’s located on the internet and not in print, may or may not exist. The media effect becoming a non-hand held device is a constant theme in a Gibson novel as well. Just think back to his 1997 novel, ‘Idoru’, where the rock star character was in love with a virtual woman. The most interesting character in this book is Henry Hollis, and you often wish Gibson would just stick with her for the entire novel instead of going off with the other two characters, but it’s understandable why he doesn't. Sometimes with Gibson, the concept a character represents is more important. The concept Gibson has about I-Pods holding information is too interesting.

Even though Gibson said he has left science fiction to write about the present, what Gibson is really doing is writing a science fiction version of magical realism. Hollis is writing an article for the magazine on digital art, and that includes scenes of her putting on a virtual reality hamlet and her seeing the death of River Phoenix and her going under the projection of an anime like creature on the wall. All are little pieces of science fiction in what is a novel placed in our time. Gibson will never stop writing about that virtual light that stays lit throughout his novels. Hollis, Tito and Milgram are all connected by the technology that surrounds them and the technology that surrounds Gibson is what connects all of Gibson’s novels.