Monday, January 27, 2014

'I, Frankenstein' continues tradition of January stinkers

This review was originally published on the KPC Media Group website. Read the original review here

It's so nice that movie studios let audiences stay home during the cold winter months.

That has to be the reason that they released "I, Frankenstein" during January, right? Anybody who ventures out in the cold and snow to see this stinker is crazy. You'd be better off staying home and watching Netflix. Or a DVD. Or the snow fall, or melt, depending on the weather report. It's not worth getting up off the couch to see this movie.

"I, Frankenstein" follows Victor Frankenstein's monster (Aaron Eckhart). After killing his master, he is attacked by demons. But before the demons can get him, he's saved by a group of gargoyles, led by the queen gargoyle, Leonore (Miranda Otto). The gargoyles, who can switch from flying stone beasts to a human appearance with a swish of a cape, try to get the monster, who Leonore names Adam, to help them kill demons, but he refuses. Fast-forward 200 years, and a big, bad demon (Bill Nighy) is trying to figure out the secret of reanimating corpses - just like Frankenstein did to Adam.

No, I am not making any of this up, despite the fact it sounds like a goth kid's fever dream, right down to the part where the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

It's sad that such a bad movie came from a relatively cool concept. Frankenstein's monster in the modern world, fighting demons alongside gargoyles sent from heaven by the archangel Michael. Yes, it's still a goofy concept, but in the hands of an excellent writer and director it could be a super hip supernatural thriller.

Sadly, "I, Frankenstein" just plods along with about as much life as Frankenstein's monster before it was zapped with electricity. The plot is nearly incoherent, with characters' motivations changing every 10 minutes. The city where the movie takes place (it's never explained where it's supposed to be) doesn't have a strong vision and just feels bland.

Aaron Eckhart is a dull leading man for "I, Frankenstein," too. The most exciting thing in his boring performance is when he pulls off his shirt, revealing an artfully scarred, totally ripped chest. But, it isn't worth the price of admission. Other than that brief interlude, Eckhart delivers his lines in a completely wooden fashion, without a hint of irony or enjoyment or even interest in what's going on. Bill Nighy, at least, is more fun to watch. He chews the scenery as the bad guy, complete with delightful dramatic pauses. I think he's at least trying.

There are a few laughs to be had when watching "I, Frankenstein." I certainly enjoyed whispering snide comments to my husband when the plot took yet another inexplicable turn, but that's also no reason to bother with seeing a movie like this in the theaters.

Despite a concept that could have worked, nearly everybody involved with "I, Frankenstein" just seemed to phone it in. The result is a big, sloppy mess, otherwise known as "just another January at the movies."

Jenny's Take: See it on DVD.
(Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense fantasy action and violence throughout. Runs 92 minutes.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Goodreads Review: "The Last Song" by Nicholas Sparks

The Last SongThe Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I absolutely hated "The Last Song." There are ways that this general plotline could have worked, but in the hands of Nicholas Sparks, it was an overwrought, contrived, schlocky mess.

"The Last Song" follows 17-year-old Ronnie, forced to spend the summer away from her home in New York City with her estranged father and her little brother, Jonah, in a small North Carolina town. On the surface, Ronnie is a troubled teen, not only because she occasionally shoplifts, but also because she *gasp* has a streak of purple in her hair and wears black, which Sparks is clear to point out about a dozen times or more in the course of the book.

Anyway, Ronnie's father, Steve, is a pianist, and Ronnie is a great piano player, too, but she has refused to play since her dad left. But soon she begins to soften, as she watches her dad and brother work on the stained glass window for the church up the beach that had burned down; as she guards a sea-turtle nest near the house; and as she slowly but surely falls in love with hot rich-guy Will. However, Ronnie has issues with some of the "bad kids" in town - the first friend she makes, Blaze, is dating a complete psychopath named Marcus, who takes a liking to Ronnie almost immediately.

I have a lot of issues with "The Last Song."

First of all, the main characters, Ronnie and Will, are bland. Ronnie is supposed to be this super troubled teen, which, as a concept, is both interesting and understandable in the context of her life, but Sparks cannot just let her be a bratty, bad kid who slowly learns a valuable lesson about life and love. Almost immediately, he has to let the audience know that she's not really such a bad person. She doesn't drink or take drugs like her friends back in New York, she's a vegetarian, and she loves puppies. Will, meanwhile, is obnoxiously perfect. His biggest fault in the whole book is that he cares too much about his friend, Scott. Gag.

The rest of the characters are complete caricatures. There is no shading, no quirks and nothing remotely interesting about them. They're just stock characters, and I felt absolutely no emotional attachment to them, nor was I remotely surprised by anything they did.

I also really resented the way that "The Last Song" seemed absolutely contrived to make the reader cry. I love to cry at good books, but reading a Nicholas Sparks book is like being beat over the head with a 2x4 while Sparks screeches, "CRY! You WILL cry! CRY AT THE TRAGEDY OF IT ALL!" It's disgusting.

The "big twists" at the end of the book were all atrociously transparent and easy to guess, and I'm terrible at guessing what a "twist" is going to be. The big tragedy was contrived and totally obvious, and the way that the characters in the book handled it was criminal.

(Spoiler Alert) The fact that Steve never told his children that he had terminal cancer for the three months they were staying with him, even though he had known his diagnosis for four months before they came, is just irresponsible, and no amount of explaining that he "wanted to get to know his children" makes that better. I didn't find it endearing - I couldn't help but think that it would be horrific to do that to someone, especially to your children. I had assumed through the book that he didn't know that he was terminally ill, and that he would find out when his children did, leading to some soul-searching together. Keeping that information from his children until he was hospitalized for it is selfish and cruel. I almost threw the book across the room at that point, and I had to stop reading it until the next day. If I hadn't been committed to finishing the book (I was reading it on what boiled down to a dare from my sister), I would have stopped right there and refused to pick it up again. (End Spoiler Alert)

I also didn't like the way that the religious references were shoehorned into the book in the most schlocky and awkward way ever. I like the idea of tackling the religious and spiritual implications of the things that happened in the book, but they were crammed in the book in the absolute most corny way possible. Gag.

"The Last Song" is a schlocky, corny, annoying mess that is insulting to the reader and incredibly annoying and infuriating to read. The story is contrived and it was obviously callously calculated to wrench the most tears from the readers. It's just plain gross. This book is absolutely terrible.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Hunger Games" vs. "Divergent" - A YA Dystopian Faceoff

I just finished reading the "Divergent" series, and since it's basically trying to be the next "Hunger Games," I thought I'd compare and contrast the two series.

"Divergent," by Veronica Roth, is a series about a girl in dystopian future Chicago who discovers that she may be in danger because she's divergent, which means that she has an aptitude for more than one trait in a strict faction-based society. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins is about a girl in dystopian future America who is sent into an arena in an annual contest where teenagers fight to the death.

(Mild spoilers for "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" series ahead. No major plot twists are revealed.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Goodreads Review: "Allegiant"

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While there were definitely some things I liked about "Allegiant," the final chapter of the "Divergent" trilogy by Veronica Roth, this book just didn't quite work for me.

"Allegiant" finishes the story of Tris Prior, who, with the help of her boyfriend, Tobias, tries to save the people of dystopian future Chicago from the people who want to tear it apart with war.

When I read "Divergent" and "Insurgent," I really liked the world but I feel like it suffered quite a bit when everything was explained. Part of it was that Roth likes to info-dump. I understand the temptation, especially when there is a lot of information to try to jam into a book, but it led to some pretty dry passages, and made the overall flow of the book uneven. I still like the idea of the world, but the execution left something to be desired.

The whole feel of "Allegiant" was just kind of off. Part of the big problem was that this book had chapters from Tobias' point of view, rather than telling the whole book from Tris' point of view. I see why Roth structured the book that way, because Tobias and Tris were separated and doing a lot of important things away from each other, but it made the book kind of confusing. It was hard to tell who was talking in what chapter, because there wasn't much of a stylistic change between Tris and Tobias. I would find myself saying, "Why is Tris ... oh, this is Tobias' chapter!"

I also felt like there was a lot of rehashing in "Allegiant," while other parts (specifically the ending) were really rushed. I could have done without Tris and Tobias talking in circles about things, and instead given a little more time for the book to wrap up properly.

I didn't hate "Allegiant" though - in fact, I read several hundred pages in one sitting. The plot was still exciting, when it moved forward (which it did in fits and starts sometimes), and I like the relationship between Tobias and Tris. I felt like their romance was very natural for older teens, and it was a bit steamy besides. I also have to give props to Roth for a brave plot decision near the end of the book that I wasn't expecting. It was a bit contrived, I thought, but it was not something that every author would do.

I'm not sorry that I read "Allegiant," or the other "Divergent" books, but I have definitely read YA dystopian novels that were much better (*cough*HungerGames*cough*). However, there were some spots where "Allegiant" really held its own, and it's definitely worth a quick read sometime.

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Look At This: 'Hannibal' Season 2 trailer

One of my favorite shows of Summer 2013 was "Hannibal." And, thankfully, it's coming back!


Monday, January 20, 2014

'Jack Ryan' solid, despite treading little new ground

This review originally appeared on the KPC Media Group website and in its three daily newspapers on Sunday. Read the original review here. Reprinted with permission. 

I suppose there is some way to reinvent the action-thriller, but until some genius comes up with a new twist on the old standby, Hollywood will probably keep churning them out.

But if they're as zippy and fun as "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," you won't hear me complaining.
The movie follows Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), a brilliant young former Marine turned CIA analyst who is thrust into the field to try to stop evil Russian banker Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) from ruining the U.S. economy with a terror attack timed perfectly with some economic mumbo-jumbo. Adding an additional wrinkle - but also an additional asset, as it turns out - Jack must also protect his fiance, Cathy (Kiera Knightley).

Jack is a little different from your basic action-thriller hero, in the sense that he is not immediately good at field work. Even though he is a former Marine, he is an egghead at heart, with a Ph.D. in economics and very little training in field work. But like every good action hero, he soon finds his footing and is sneaking into heavily guarded buildings, beating bad guys to a pulp and generally being awesome by about halfway through the movie.

Also a little bit refreshing is Cathy, who, thank goodness, breaks out of the suspicious, shrewish girlfriend role partway through the movie and proves herself to be a brave, capable sidekick for Jack for a big chunk of the middle of the movie before being relegated to the background for the final showdown. Still, she's also incredibly smart - I mean, she's a doctor - and she's brave, too. I would actually love to see Cathy and Jack put their brains together to bring down terrorists on a regular basis in movies. Get on that, Hollywood!

Still, these notable aspects are really just slight tweaks on extremely common tropes. During the movie, even though I enjoyed it, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" all seemed pretty familiar. And, let's face it, that's not a surprise. In addition to being in more than a dozen novels penned by Tom Clancy, this is far from the first time Jack has been on the big screen. Although he's played by different actors, Jack Ryan is the main character of "The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Sum of All Fears."

Despite the fact that it's not exactly fresh, though, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is not a waste of time at the movies. Chris Pine does an excellent job putting his own stamp on the character, which can't be easy when Jack Ryan has also been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. Pine does an excellent job of making Jack's motiviations clear. He's tough, but that's because he's determined to do his job and save the country. He's not an action hero robot, though - it's nice to see the main character in a thriller visably shaken after killing somebody. There's an underlying humanity that is always there, and it gives "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" just a little more depth.

This movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it doesn't even really tread much new ground. What it does do, though, is deliver a solid, watchable story with a lead character that's relatable (and good-looking, if you're into that sort of thing). Some days, there's nothing I'd rather watch more.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.
(Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language. Runs 105 minutes.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Goodreads Review: "Beyond the Highland Mist"

Beyond the Highland Mist (Highlander, #1)Beyond the Highland Mist by Karen Marie Moning
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have soft spots in my heart for romance novels, time travel and Scottish hotties, so of course I thoroughly enjoyed "Beyond the Highland Mist."

The book follows Adrienne, a woman with a scary past she'd love to escape, who is magically zapped back to 16th-century Scotland and almost immediately wed to the strong, sexy alpha male Sidheach, a Scottish laird better known as the Hawk. She, of course, immediately hates him, because she hates beautiful men and he is GORGEOUS, and the Hawk immediately falls madly in love with her.

What follows is a lovely tale of seduction and romance made more exciting (and difficult) with the addition of fairies stirring up trouble between the couple - as they do.

OK, so it's not a perfect book. The Hawk is a little bit overly alpha and acts decidedly un-modern in a few places (he is a 16th-century Scottish alpha male, after all!), although Karen Marie Moning does a pretty good job of tempering his nasty tendencies with some softness, too. Adrienne is a strong heroine most of the time, too, although she is a bit too passive for my taste at times (I prefer my heroines to be at least 95% sassy all the time).

The characters I really, really like in "Beyond the Highland Mist" are the secondary characters - The Hawk's mother, the Roma, the fairies. Even if I didn't know that there are several more Highlander books and the related Fever series, I would know that Moning was attempting, and succeeding, at world-building with this book. I'm tantalized, and not just by the steamy scenes (although they were tantalizing - my sister, a romance novel expert, was not lying when she said Moning's books are deliciously naughty!).

I thoroughly enjoyed "Beyond the Highland Mist," and I will certainly be continuing to read this delightful series!

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Sherlock' season 3 premiere worth the long wait

Note: This review is spoiler-free, so don't be afraid to read it!

I feel like I've been waiting years for the third season of BBC's "Sherlock" to premiere in the U.S.

Hello, boys! I've missed you!

It's actually only been a little less than a year and a half, but season 2 ended with such a dynamic, surprising, exciting and soul-wrenching finale that it was torture to wait for the story to continue.

So when the episode started (I was lucky enough to see the episode a week early thanks to a screening by my local PBS station), I was incredibly excited.

I was also nervous though - nervous that the premiere episode, "The Empty Hearse," would fall far short of "The Reichenbach Fall."

It doesn't beat season 2's finale, but it was still a great, enjoyable, exciting episode that was worth the wait.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Goodreads Review: "Dragonfly in Amber"

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander, #2)Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm really enjoying my slow but sure trek through the "Outlander" series. I read the first book last spring, and while I wasn't so enthralled that I had to read "Dragonfly in Amber" immediately, but when I was looking for a book to read, I decided I wanted to know what happened next to Claire & Jamie.

"Dragonfly in Amber" is a delightful, fun read. It, like "Outlander," is a guilty pleasure romance read for the historical fiction set or, alternately, an especially richly plotted, relatively historically accurate book that the historical romance set can feel all classy reading. Since I don't like to categorize my reads like that, though, I will just say this - it has a great story, good characters, stomach-fluttering romance, fun historical plotlines and a good dose of time-travel fun.

"Dragonfly in Amber" doesn't quite start where "Outlander" leaves off. Rather, it starts with our heroine, Claire, and her daughter, Brianna, in Scotland in 1968, shortly after the death of Claire's 20th-century husband, Frank, 20-some years after Claire returned to the 20th century disoriented and pregnant. While Frank was alive, Claire never told Brianna about her true parentage, or about Claire's adventure in the 18th century. But in "Dragonfly in Amber," Claire tells Brianna about her work with her 18th century husband, Jamie, to stop the Jacobite rebellion and save Jamie's clan from the bloody Battle of Culloden.

"Dragonfly in Amber" is a lot of fun to read, and I really loved revisiting the characters from "Outlander." I thought I would have trouble remembering the secondary characters and plot threads, since I finished "Outlander" nine months before I started "Dragonfly in Amber," but with a few exceptions, characters and plotlines were reintroduced in wonderful way that made it easy for me to recall what happened.

But more than that, I felt like "Dragonfly in Amber" gave me a chance to reconnect with some characters I really like, and deepen my love for them. Claire is a wonderful, strong heroine, and Jamie, while distinctly and sometimes annoyingly old-fashioned, is also sweet, tough and easy to love. With the addition of some strong new characters and more scenes with old favorites (and great old villains, too), "Dragonfly in Amber" is a blast to read. I'm looking forward to reading the next one sometime soon!

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Legend and laughs continue with 'Anchorman 2'

This movie review was originally posted at KPC Media Group's website. You can read the review here. Reprinted with permission.

When I told my husband I was planning to review 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues' this week, he gave me a wary look and told me, "You don't need to review that!"

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because, from the previews, it looks like all you'll need to say is, 'If you liked the first 'Anchorman,' you'll like this movie," he replied.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, he was pretty much right. "Anchorman 2" does not quite live up to the screamingly hilarious, intensely quoteable "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," but it still delivers enough laughs to make it well worth the time and money.

"Anchorman 2" picks up in 1980, several years after the original "Anchorman." Newsman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his now-wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), are an anchor team in New York City. But after Veronica is promoted to nightly news anchor and Ron is fired, Ron leaves for a disasterous new life alone in San Diego.

Lucky for Ron, though, he is soon tapped to work at a new news venture - GNN, the first 24-hour news network. He gets his news team - Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell) - out of retirement and they jet off to New York to work under tough producer Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Unfortunately, they have to contend with the likes of stuck-up newsman Jack Lime (James Marsden), and Ron has the added complication of Veronica's new lover, Gary (Greg Kinnear).

"Anchorman 2" has a couple of things going for it. One is the incredible chemistry and comedic timing of the actors. Many of the scenes with Ferrell, Koechner, Rudd and Carrell all together are magic. Their characters are all totally weird and sometimes just too much when they have scenes apart from each other, but when they mesh, that's when the belly-laughs start. Applegate, unfortunately, gets relagated to the background for most of "Anchorman 2," but when she is on screen, she's solid. However, Kristen Wiig does a great job with a super strange character, a GNN secretary named Chani. In another actress' hands, Chani might not have worked, but Wiig is talented and unself-concious enough to make the character a welcome addition.

Ferrell is also, once again, a wonderful star for the center of this crazy circus they call "Anchorman." Ron Burgundy is clearly a character that Ferrell loves to play, and it shows throughout the movie. He has fleshed out the character so completely, and he inhabits him so fully, that it's actually kind of amazing to watch. Ferrell's comedic characters can sometimes cross the line into being obnoxious, but with Burgundy, Ferrell walks that line between hilarious and annoying perfectly.

The other thing that makes "Anchorman 2" great is the way it critiques 24-hour cable news. There is a lot about those channels to mock, and "Anchorman 2" hits them just right. When Ron comes up with the brilliant (and ratings-friendly) idea to give people what they want to watch - funny videos of animals, car chases and good old-fashioned patriotism - it's funny because it's so true-to-life. But it goes deeper than that. The commentary gets biting at times, like when an investigative story gets cut because it messes with the "synergy" of the parent company. I think writers Ferrell and Adam McKay have been paying attention!

But despite some solid satire, "Anchorman 2" is really just another super-silly, ridiculously goofy comedy that exists to make a whole lot of jokes, most of which are funny. "Anchorman 2" does have some low spots, but the hilarious highs more than make up for slow moments. Ferrell and McKay employed the "throw it all at the wall and see what sticks" method of comedy, full of rapid-fire jokes that are sometimes hit-and-miss, but a smattering of hysterical scenes throughout the movie and an enjoyably ridiculous last half-hour featuring no less than a dozen celebrity cameos make it a lot of fun to watch.

"Anchorman 2" is exactly what I'm looking for in an "Anchorman" sequel - a couple of hours of laughing really hard at stupid jokes. The fact that it made a bit of a satirical point about something that actually needs to be mocked now and then - 24-hour cable TV news - is just a little added bonus to an already enjoyable couple of hours.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.
(Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comedic violence. Runs 120 minutes.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Goodreads Review: "The Bride Wore Size 12" by Meg Cabot

The Bride Wore Size 12  (Heather Wells #5)The Bride Wore Size 12 by Meg Cabot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of every Meg Cabot book I've read - and I've read quite a few! - but I have a special place in my heart for Heather Wells.

Heather is a former teen pop star who, after a run of bad luck, ends up with no record deal and no money. Instead of whining and having a meltdown, the industrious Heather gets a job at a college dorm.

In "The Bride Wore Size 12," Heather must, once again, solve a murder mystery at Death Dorm. This time, an RA is found dead, and Heather suspects that it has something to do with a Very Important Resident in the dorm this semester. But she can't devote all of her time to solving another murder, because she's also in the last weeks of planning her wedding to her true love (and pop star ex-boyfriend's brother), private investigator Cooper Cartwright.

"The Bride Wore Size 12," like all of the previous Heather Wells books, is silly and fun to read. If you're looking for a thickly plotted mystery full of twists and turns, this ain't it. While the murder is interesting and the solution is not TOTALLY obvious, it's not super shocking, either. While "The Bride Wore Size 12" does not quite fit the strictest definition of a cozy mystery, it's basically a cozy with a dash of chick-lit sass.

The thing that really makes this series sparkle is the lead character, Heather. She is a smart, resourceful woman making her way in the world after getting screwed over by her recording label, her ex-boyfriend, her mother, her father and her manager. But far from being bitter (well, she's not TOO bitter, anyway), Heather makes the best of her situation by finding a job, starting school and writing songs in her spare time.

Heather feels like a real, realistic, likeable person, and that's one of the things that really makes "The Bride Wore Size 12" a fun book to read. Heather ranks up there with Sookie Stackhouse and Stephanie Plum as my favorite chick-lit characters. (In fact, if I were ever to write fan-fic, it would involve Heather, Sookie and Stephanie getting together to solve a mystery.) She's the kind of character I just want to meet, hug, and hang out with while eating chocolate chip cookies, drinking wine and watching crappy reality TV.

There are fun side characters, too. In addition to Cooper, who is dreamy and wonderful, there are also the workers and students in the dorm, Cooper's hilariously horrible family and several other friends of Heather and Cooper. They round out the book nicely.

I absolutely loved "The Bride Wore Size 12." It's a fluffy, fun little mystery that is a quick, easy and delightful read. While this would be a perfectly acceptable ending to the series - things were wrapped up nicely - I hope that Meg Cabot decides to write some more of these fun, tasty morsels!!!

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

It's hard to put together a list of the best movies of 2013, but I did it, in a recent article I wrote for KPC Media Group. You can check it out here.

One of my New Years Resolutions is to post more on the blog, since I've been slacking for, oh, a few months ... so expect to hear more from me soon!