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Movie Review – “People Like Us”

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Introduction:
I have been on a Chris Pine kick as of late (but, come on, ladies, can you really say you blame me?) 😉  All superficiality aside though, I honestly am impressed with his acting and, while I probably won’t watch everything he’s done, I am determined to view most of his major films. Doing so has nudged me out of my cinematic comfort zone and into other genres I probably would have never touched (case in point: Hell or High Water). In this film’s case, normally I avoid family dramas because they tend to be generic and/or unbelievably unrealistic. Seeing as People Like Us is very much a family drama, and very much not my typical cup of tea, how did it stack up? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: From DreamWorks Pictures comes People Like Us, a drama/comedy about family, inspired by true events, starring Chris Pine as Sam, a twenty-something, fast-talking salesman, whose latest deal collapses on the day he learns that his father has suddenly died. Against his wishes, Sam is called home, where he must put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with his estranged family. In the course of fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Sam uncovers a startling secret that turns his entire world upside down: He has a 30-year-old sister Frankie whom he never knew about (Elizabeth Banks). As their relationship develops, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family – and re-examine his own life choices in the process.

My Take:
I had this movie in my iTunes rental queue for a bit before I finally decided to check it out. I’m not sure why I put it off, but I suspect it had something to do with my apprehensions about this genre in general. My viewing experience with family dramas has been slim as I tend to shy away from realistic stories and focus more on the fantastical and purely fictional. Not to mention I’m not an openly emotional person, so watching films that make me feel like they’re trying to force me into soaking tissues with tears rubs me the wrong way because I don’t like a story trying to guide my feelings with as much subtly as a maestro conducting an orchestra.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by People Like Us and my preconceived notions were all but entirely dashed. One thing that works in this movie’s favor is its solid script. Not only does it tell a coherent, cohesive story that focuses on a small cast, it’s also adequately paced and allows its actors to emotionally go where they feel led. Concerning the inspiration for the story, this was apparently based on the real-life story regarding the film’s director, Alex Kurtzman, and his own long-lost sister. Despite this being based on a true story, nothing here feels like it’s trying too hard to reenact actual events. While I can’t say how closely the film follows Kurtzman’s personal journey, I can say that, for me, the story stands on its own even without knowing details of the director’s story.

I also appreciated the fact that the cast was small, which not only keeps the story’s mechanics simple but also gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters. Most of the story focuses on Sam trying to reconnect with his sister, Frankie, while also striving to fly under the radar so she doesn’t suspect anything. You can tell he is struggling to comprehend it all, learning that, after all this time, he has a sister as well as contemplate when the best time would be to reveal his true identity to her. To Frankie, Sam is a kind male friend who has taken her son, Josh, under his wing but who displays no romantic interest in her whatsoever. Therefore, their dynamic is fascinating thanks to Frankie’s ignorance of the truth and Sam’s reluctance to reveal too much too soon. While some of this did require me to suspend my disbelief at times, it came across as mostly genuine.

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Naturally this sense of authenticity comes down to the actors themselves, who you can tell seriously invested themselves into their respective characters. As always, I have to give props to Chris Pine, who I feel is a bit of an overlooked talent. I’m glad he wants to branch out and take on a variety of roles rather than being typecast or resigned to being an attractive face who gets cast in anything that comes along. While not everything a good actor does turns out perfect, I have noticed that Pine does his best to salvage whatever is asked of him in a script (such as his performance in the average spy action movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). In this film’s case, Pine didn’t have to mine very far to find good material to work with as People Like Us has a solid script that allows its actors to portray their respective characters as they see fit.

One quality to Pine’s acting that I’ve noted before is that, regardless what type of character he is playing, he is always able to make me feel like his character could be a real person. Nothing ever feels overdone or half-hearted; instead, Pine delivers a good balance. This is especially true here where Sam struggles with a myriad of emotions but never comes across as hackneyed or pathetic. Sam’s pain is our pain, his joy our joy, and he seems like a real person, someone who could actually exist. Only part of this can be attributed to the script because it takes an actor to make a character three dimensional, and that’s what Pine does: he creates a fully fleshed out character who reacts to situations in an organic fashion. In short, if I can believe the character an actor is playing could actually exist, then he’s succeeded as an actor. Pine does just that here, and I thought this was great casting and a great role for him.

Concerning the other lead, Elizabeth Banks, I’m not very familiar with her as an actress outside of her portrayal of Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games films. Thus, I don’t feel I can be a good judge of her performance here, but I thought she did a good job. Was it be enough to get me to intentionally seek out her movies? No, though I couldn’t find much fault with her portrayal of Frankie except that, at times, she did seem to over-act, causing Frankie to behave in a slightly overly dramatic way that clashed with Pine’s more balanced performance. However, Banks never becomes hammy and stays in character in a way that’s believable but just a touch over-dramatized. The final performer of note is Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Sam’s mother. Again, I’m not overly familiar with Pfeffier’s filmography (having only seen her in three films, excluding this one: Dangerous Minds, Scarface, and Batman Returns), but I thought she handled her character well and made her struggles and desire for some secrets to remain hidden very believable.

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In terms of the film’s look and feel, this is physically a bright/naturally-lit film that, while classified as a drama, avoids becoming dismal. It might have been tempting to turn this into a dark family secrets type of tale but, instead, People Like Us maintains an upbeat tone, which helps carry it through the story’s more morose moments. Smatterings of comedy also break up the more somber scenes, and these are smartly integrated and never feel inserted strictly for the sake of trying to get a laugh. Likewise, the soundtrack and score (which was composed by A. R. Rahman) were also incorporated nicely, combining a quiet, string-driven orchestra with classic rock and alternative tracks. Seeing as some of the movie’s focal story points are musicians and music, this presented a good balance of sounds and, for the most part, blended seamlessly into the story.

All of that being said, People Like Us does suffer from a few minor flaws, none of which are deal breakers. The first is that, at times, the movie does try to intentionally elicit an emotional response from the audience chiefly through music choice. Sometimes during a happy scene, the music seemed a little too perky, and sometimes during a quieter moment, the score was a little too melodramatic. This is nitpicking but, for me, I think some of the movie’s best moments would have been just as effective, if not even more so, without music.

In the same way, the film’s running time seems unduly long. This movie clocks in a few minutes shy of two hours, and it feels like a nearly two hour-long movie. I think it could have been shortened by thirty or forty minutes and wouldn’t have lost its emotional integrity. If anything, it might have been stronger with a shorter running time. I confess there were times throughout the film that I started to mentally withdraw as some scenes tended to drag on a tad longer than what felt necessary. But again, this is nitpicking and it’s not like the film becomes a weakened story because of a two-hour running time, but it does feel stretched thin in spots.

Lastly, the film’s trailer misrepresents the final product to a certain degree (as most trailers do, one way or the other) as it makes it appear that Sam reveals the truth about his connection to Frankie early on, and this is what I kept expecting. Yet the story drags this plot point out and, while it builds tension and causes Sam’s dilemma to appear more realistic, I would have liked to have seen the truth brought out sooner, which might have helped shrink the running time. In the same way, and to further nitpick, I felt that some of Frankie’s reactions to particular situations bordered on being unbelievable at times. Her friendship with Sam (who, by all rights, is a total stranger to her and her son) seems to blossom and become too open too quickly even though she knows very little about him. Similarly, we learn that Sam is facing a legal inquiry on his job yet this is never resolved, which felt dismissive as if the script forgot to add a proper conclusion. But, again, this is fiction, which allows for the suspension of disbelief, though sometimes it feels like the film asked for a little too much suspension.

PEOPLE LIKE US
All of that being said (and, honestly, most of the negatives are just me being picky), People Like Us is a good, solidly constructed, well-acted story. While at times it can feel like it’s trying to be slightly emotionally manipulative, it’s never over-done. On top of its other positives, there were good messages here about being loyal to family as well as acting selflessly for the good of others. While Sam starts off as a selfish jerk, he doesn’t stay that way as his heart begins to change once he learns the truth about his family and sees that living life just for himself isn’t the best way to go. Though the story might seem a bit predictable, the ending does reveal a genuinely sweet surprise, which I won’t discuss it as it counts as a spoiler. But I thought it was a great note to close out on despite not wrapping up some of the other plot threads. In the end, I really liked People Like Us as it’s an uplifting story that shows how family bonds can withstand both long distances and the test of time.

Content Breakdown: People Like Us was given an PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively infrequent but does employ PG and PG-13 words (chiefly the sh-word) and one f-word as well as a few obscene gestures (both of which are spoken by and delivered by kids).

Violence – None. There are a few tense family moments (including arguing and some characters being slapped but not abused), but nothing ever becomes violent and no one comes to any real harm. Elsewhere, Josh gets into trouble at school but no one ever comes to harm because of his antics.

Sexual Material – Essentially none save for a brief scene where Frankie and a neighbor try to have spontaneous sex, but they just fumble around fully clothed while standing up. Elsewhere, it’s a known fact that Sam and Frankie’s father fathered a child out of wedlock, but nothing further is ever discussed to this effect. Lastly, there are mild innuendos (some of which are spoken by a pre-teen character) but nothing graphic.

Substance Abuse – Sam’s father was taking medical marijuana to manage pain, so Sam eventually decides to smoke a leftover joint and his mother smokes one as well. Elsewhere, Frankie works as a bar tender at a trendy hot spot where alcoholic drinks abound (yet she herself has struggled with alcoholism and attends recovery meetings). A few other characters drink to get intentionally drunk.

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe People Like Us stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s story and content as there is nothing here that would be interesting to young viewers.

Older Children & Teens – Recommended for older teens (age 16 and older) rather than anyone younger for the same reasons above – the story and its themes are tailored towards a mature audience and, unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast, I doubt they would display much interest.

Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons looking for a family drama that, to its credit, doesn’t take itself too seriously and focuses more on family dynamics as opposed to dilemmas.

The Run-Down:
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Overall, People Like Us is a well-told story that has clear aims for its characters, sports a good cast, and has a tightly-constructed structure and appropriate tone. For anyone looking for a uplifting story about family that focuses more on the good things while not sidestepping the bad, this makes for a good pick. While the movie does feel like it pushes itself to make its two-hour running time and can run a little too melodramatic at times, it’s ultimately a refreshing watch and certainly worth checking out.

Final Verdict:
happy star movies ratinghappy star movies ratinghappy star movies rating
(Three out of Five Stars)

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Movie Review – “Suicide Squad”

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Introduction:
Suicide Squad was one of the most anticipated and promoted summer movies of 2016. After seeing its trailers, it looked kooky enough for me to give it a try. Even after the avalanche of bad press upon the film’s release, I was still intrigued to check it out to settle my own curiosity. So is this a blockbuster gone bust or is it just as misunderstood as its titular band of antiheroic misfits? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: It feels good to be bad… Assemble a team of the world’s most dangerous, incarcerated Super Villains, provide them with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and send them off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic, insuperable entity. U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller has determined only a secretly convened group of disparate, despicable individuals with next to nothing to lose will do. However, once they realize they weren’t picked to succeed but chosen for their patent culpability when they inevitably fail, will the Suicide Squad resolve to die trying, or decide it’s every man for himself?

My Take:
I give every movie I watch the benefit of the doubt. Regardless what audiences or critics say, I sit those opinions aside and view a film with fresh eyes and draw my own conclusions. Sometimes a film that gets panned by critics gets praise from me, and other times a film that earns glowing reviews sometimes fails to ignite a spark in me.

So how did Suicide Squad hold up?

I just have to come right out and say it…
facepalm no oh great meh ugh
Suicide Squad is a terrible movie.

But it’s a special kind of terrible in that it’s not immediately apparent that it’s bad, at least not at first glance. Instead, it actually needs to be seen as its principle flaws exist at the structural level, its story’s skeleton as it were. It has broken bones and missing pieces that go unnoticed unless seen up-close. That struck me as such a shame seeing as this film obviously took millions to make, threw tons of money into its marketing, yet turned up drastically short on what – at least in theory – it had the potential to be.

As stated, the biggest flaw Suicide Squad possesses is in its very structure, which affects all of the components reliant upon it, from tone to characters’ story arcs. Each of the three acts are decidedly different in delivery, tone, and pacing. The first act, which introduces the members of the Suicide Squad, passed by at an erratic pace and felt like a sequence of infodumps. Rather than spend time organically incorporating characters’ backstories, the film takes the easy way out and splashes pertinent information about each character on the screen (a la trading card stats), giving the audience mere seconds to take it in. This is outright lazy, if you ask me. Instead of presenting the Squad’s members as unique individuals, the reasons as to what makes them each tick are simply glossed over. The only exception is Deadshot, who receives the most polished and coherent backstory in comparison (though even this is somewhat lacking), and he becomes one of the most well-rounded characters because of this.

Otherwise, act one is a floundering mess. It’s weighted down with pop music samples that barely play through one verse, it takes too long to set up the plot yet speeds through character introductions, and it drags its feet just getting to the initial  conflict. It isn’t until forty-plus minutes in for it to finally come to terms with what the general plot is going to be, which opens the door to act two.

But the second act is even shakier than the first as all it consists of is characters playing Rambo while dodging and shooting at bubble rock-headed humanoid creatures. It reminded me a video game and, in terms of character development, there leaves a lot to be desired. Scenes chiefly alternate between the Squad’s overseer (read: babysitter) Rick Flag growling orders and the Suicide Squad either (a). serving as backup or (b). just walking around. Seeing as a second act is supposed to be moving towards the story’s highest dramatic point, Suicide Squad misses the mark and echoes the narrative depth of a first-person shooter game. Despite all of the action, there is nothing of substance that occurs at such a critical time in the film.

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Thankfully, the movie seems to find its footing in the third act, which contains more character-focused moments albeit they’re brief at best. Honestly, the all-around best scene is the bar scene, which opens act three. This is where, for me, the movie really begins and it’s a shame it didn’t open with this sort of pacing and tone. There is no bombastic action, no frantic fights, and no flying bullets. It’s just the members of the Suicide Squad sitting around and talking. It’s a subdued but very effective scene as it dives into some  introspective and even philosophical moments. Here, some of the characters discuss what drives them, for better or worse. When one character laments about a terrible tragedy he directly caused, Harley Quinn urges him to “own that” and concurs with another character that, on the inside, each one of them is “ugly.”

She goes on to assert that, “Normal is a setting on the dryer. People like us, we don’t get normal.” Her remarks, as well as musings from other characters, raise the implied question of why people such as themselves are deprived of a normal life – does it simply come with the territory of being a villain or is it a direct consequence of committing bad actions? In another scene, Deadshot calls out Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) on some of her actions, including killing people in cold blood. He witnesses this and muses, “And I’m the bad guy?” Through this scene as well, the film raises questions of what it means to be a villain and how such a character is formed by the choices he or she makes. These would have been great to explore more thoroughly, and the film does in minor ways, but ultimately it forsakes any attempt to make serious connections or commentary and simply jumps from set piece to set piece.

I also liked the scene where Enchantress tries to manipulate some of the Squad by showing them visions of their deepest desires. Most of these hallucinations involve family, either real or imagined, and this was a nice touch as it dove briefly into what the Squad truly holds dear. By way of example, Harley Quinn envisions herself as a happily married woman with a house, two children, and a washing machine. This reveals more about her than any amount of neon graffiti on-screen text ever could because it shows rather than tells. On the surface, Quinn is crazy and violent yet in her heart she longs to be a wife and mom who both loves and is loved; thus, this shows how she’s not entirely infected by her bad inclinations. Yet, as with most of the best moments in this movie, the scene quickly ends and we’re made to endure yet another bombastic set piece. Collectively, these quiet, subtle moments all feel like they’re building up to something only to be deflated by overwrought action.

Overall, Suicide Squad is a mishmash of tones, pacing, and narrative styles. The first act is frantic, colorful, and full of infodumps that drag on far too long. Act two sacrifices character development for shoot-em-up video game-style action where dialogue exists only to instruct characters where to shoot, where to run, and what not to do. The third act is the strongest as the characters finally come together and start musing about the consequences of their transgressions. But it’s a shame it takes the film nearly its entire running time for the the best parts to emerge.

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Aside from these structural flaws, there are other issues serving as cracks in the film’s veneer, namely an odd chief antagonist choice. When news broke that the Clown Prince of Crime himself – the Joker – would be making an appearance, naturally I assumed he would serve as the film’s principle villain. However, in what has to be one of the film’s biggest blunders, the Joker (Jared Leto) does not become the central villain. Instead, that honor goes to Enchantress, one of the Suicide Squad’s own members. In fact, the Joker doesn’t consume much screen time at all, which is strange considering he’s one of DC’s biggest and most widely-recognized bad guys.

This choice utterly baffled me. The Joker is consistently ranked as one of the top comic book villains of all time and for good reason – he’s crazy, diabolical, manipulative, unorthodox, and yet carries a cloak of mystique. Even casual Batman fans know who the Joker is, as well as his basic traits, as he’s been a staple villain in the DC universe for years. Hence, it only made sense to showcase him as the film’s villain, seeing as most viewers probably won’t be familiar with the Suicide Squad, so it helps to have another principle character who is easily recognizable. But awarding the spot of chief antagonist to a relatively unknown character (at least to mass audiences) was a creative decision that made absolutely no sense. In terms of Leto’s performance as the Joker, I’d give it a two out of five: it’s not terrible as he gives it an urban gangsta flair but it’s far from flawless, and I can see why some fans don’t care for this interpretation. But part of the lack of love might be due to the fact that the Joker is never given much to do; hence, his presence is squandered and he’s never developed as a character.

Not to mention Enchantress is never given a good motive to be a villain. While it’s obvious she seeks to reclaim a part of her that another character is keeping hostage, why destroy the whole world? Why not just target that one individual? Similarly, since Enchantress seeks to control the world, why destroy it? If there is no world to rule over, what’s left to control? The only reason the film gives for her war against mankind is that she feels slighted that people no longer worship her as she was once revered as a goddess, but even this isn’t explored in depth or at any length. It’s almost as if the story just dropped her in as a villain and then scrawled in a random motive. But in the end, this only causes Enchantress to become a throwaway character, a trait that should never be awarded to the lead villain.

Negative reviews are always the hardest to write because I find it much easier to praise a movie than focus on what fell flat or didn’t work. That being said, some of the characters here are interesting but their developments feel restricted by the film’s shaky structure and pacing issues. I strongly believe any one of these characters could be in a film that focused just on him or her and they would be able to carry the weight. Hence, the best characters for me were Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).

Deadshot’s story arc feels the most complete thanks to a concrete (albeit brief) backstory, which helps ground his character. In second place was El Diablo whose arc, like Deadshot’s, feels finalized to a degree, which, again, is assisted by a good backstory that unfortunately doesn’t get revealed until act three. Lastly, Harley Quinn is a standout and Robbie looked like she was having a blast playing her. However, Quinn’s evolution seemed incomplete, and one issue I took with her storyline was how the abusive aspects of her relationship with the Joker were downplayed. Any casual Harley Quinn fan knows that the Quinn-Joker ship is seriously messed up. The Joker often subjects Quinn to physical, psychological, and verbal abuse, and while some of that is hinted at here, for the most part their pairing is played up as a romantic coupling of two criminal oddballs. But this is a misrepresentation and doesn’t reveal the extent of the relationship’s thorniness. Lastly, it’s only fair I give a mention to Katana as well who, despite being a cool character with an emotional backstory, is unfairly showcased. She’s presented as a bodyguard for Rick Flag, but she does get a brief moment where she goes off alone and tearfully promises the soul of her husband (which is trapped in her sword) that she will see him again if she should die. This was a rare, poignant moment and gave a tiny window into her character; but again, like most of the good parts of this film, it doesn’t last.

As a whole, the film feels unfinished and gives the impression that much of the original cut was left on the editing room floor, which makes me wonder what was omitted and why. (Just to note, I rented the film through iTunes and nothing indicated it was an extended version, so I assume I viewed the theatrical cut.) To be honest, I felt like Suicide Squad had potential, not in its finished state but hypothetically. Stories about antiheros are interesting as they usually bring up good questions regarding moral behavior, transformation, and redemption. While this film dabbles in these waters, it abandons them just as quickly as it sticks its toe in. In reality, this film could have gone one of three ways: an action flick filled with colorful characters, a shoot-em-up popcorn flick, or an introspective antihero piece. Any one of those directions would have been fine; but to its detriment, the film never makes up its mind and tries to combine all three, never fully fleshing any one of them out.

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Probably the only time the film deals at any length with the topic of flawed people is through it’s credits song, “Heathens,” by Twenty One Pilots. All my friends are heathens/take it slow, the singer says, affirming that broken people need a gentle touch. It’s worth nothing that the word heathen, while it can refer to someone who doesn’t believe in a particular religion or who engages in pagan beliefs, is also used as a term for “a person regarded as lacking culture or moral principles.” Hence, a heathen is an outsider. The singer then goes on to request, Please don’t make any sudden moves/You don’t know the half of the abuse, implying that it’s impossible to know another person’s circumstances, then assures us that flawed people surround us and we engage them every day (You’re lovin’ on the psychopath sitting next to you/You’re lovin’ on the murderer sitting next to you….You’ll have some weird people sitting next to you). While the song never explains whether it’s literally talking about killers and criminals, I tend to believe these terms are being used as metaphors for the moral damage everyday people can do to each other by hurting feelings or cutting others with their words.

I like how Adam Holz chooses to interpret these lyrics: Is the band literally suggesting that we might be among psychopaths and murderers and not know it? The song doesn’t answer that question definitively. But I suspect Joseph and Dun [of Twenty One Pilots] are speaking metaphorically here, provoking us to consider that shadows lurk in all of our hearts. Accordingly, their message is the same to all of us, no matter how broken (or not) we consider ourselves and others to be: Don’t be too quick to judge people who look or seem radically different. In this context, “Heathens” is the perfect theme song for Suicide Squad as it’s easy to see the shadow lurking in characters’ hearts, yet their shows of loyalty and even desire for good dreams displays that they are not entirely evil.

Now if only the movie itself made so deep a claim.
Disappointed head shake no way upset

Content Breakdown: Suicide Squad was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is frequent at times, though not pervasive, and employs typical PG and PG-13 words, chiefly the sh-word. A single f-word is heard in the lyrics to the song “Gangsta” by Kehlani that plays over a scene.

ViolenceSuicide Squad is surprisingly violent, especially in its second act, and, despite a lack of gore, the movie skirts close to an R-rating due to the frequency of its violent action. Characters shoot, stab, slice, and bludgeon baddies. While there is no blood or gore (as the creatures simply crumble apart), such scenes are usually large-scale and carry on for several minutes. Elsewhere, we watch Deadshot engage in his trade as a hitman as he takes out a mark (though there is minimal blood). Other characters are forced into perilous situations and engage in fisticuffs, firefights, and the like. We learn how one character torched people alive, see another character shoot several innocent people in the head, witness the Joker prepare to torture Harley Quinn, among other moments of peril and violence. Also, the Squad’s members are injected with small explosives in their necks under the threat of death should they defect. One member does defect and is promptly killed (the character’s head explodes at a distance and we see the headless body though it isn’t gory). Lastly, some of the songs used in the film glorify criminal activity and/or contain references to drugs, violence, and torture (such as “Purple Lamborghini,” “Sucker for Pain,” and “Gangsta” which is about a woman who is “built for the abuse”). Overall, this film harbors a dark tone and has frequent, prolonged scenes of violent action that, while nearly bloodless, can still be intense.

Sexual Material – Most of the film’s sensuality (as there are no actual sex scenes or nudity) comes courtesy of Enchantress. First, we learn that June Moone (who Enchantress possesses) is in an unmarried relationship with Rick Flag and the two are rumored to have been sexually intimate (though nothing is ever shown other than a few kisses and they share a bed fully clothed). June is seen once, briefly, in a bra and panties as she’s lying unconscious on a stretcher. Enchantress herself is garbed in barely-there costumes that cover critical parts of her anatomy but little else. Enchantress’ kisses transform normal humans into monsters she employs as soldiers, and she performs a gyrating dance as she casts a spell in order to create a doomsday machine. Elsewhere, the Joker refers to Harley Quinn as the “fire in my loins, the itch in my crotch” and offers her to please another man who refuses her advances. Quinn herself is also sexualized as we see her changing clothes in front of ogling men (she’s wearing tiny shorts and a bra as she tugs a form-fitting t-shirt over her chest) and wears said shirt and skimpy “booty shorts” all throughout the film. Elsewhere, Quinn dances in a nightclub in a short, low-cut dress as she briefly grinds on another woman. Also, the Joker-Quinn dynamic is questionable as it is based upon control and abuse though there is only an undercurrent of that here. In several flashbacks, we see the Joker threaten to torture her and later ask if she would both live and die for him before she takes a dive into a vat of acid. Lastly, some songs used in the film have sexually-charged or sensual lyrics (such as “Come My Lady,” “Super Freak,” and “Over Here”).

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Suicide Squad stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended due to the film’s story, dark tone, and content.

Older Children & Teens – Not really recommended unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast or like comic-book movies in general; however, the violent and sensual content should give parents and guardians some pause.

Young Adults & Adults – Not really recommended, but die-hard DC fans who want to follow the DC Extended Universe might still want to check it out. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to recommend to casually-interested viewers.

The Run-Down:
giveup bored tire
Overall, Suicide Squad is a cinematic mess as it’s a mishmash of tones and ideas, never settling on what it wants to be. In truth, it feels like a squandered story, something that had the potential to be good in theory, especially considering its motley crew of fun characters. But it never materializes into anything other than a sub-par superhero action flick.

Final Verdict:
happy star movies rating
(One Star out of Five)

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Movie Review – “U.S. Marshals”

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Introduction:
When I was a teenager, I was the world’s biggest Tommy Lee Jones fan. The first movie of his I remember seeing was Men in Black and I was impressed with the way he portrayed the character of Agent K. So, as teenagers tend to do, I started obsessing about seeing all of his movies (or at least as many as I could from 1997 to 1999 when I eventually outgrew my obsession). Eventually, I ended up watching The Fugitive (1993) and really enjoyed it; so when a sequel was released in theaters in 1998, I knew I had to see it. Back then, I thought U.S. Marshals was the coolest movie ever and Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t be any cooler! Recently, I was feeling nostalgic and decided to watch this movie after nearly 20 years. But is U.S. Marshals still the coolest movie ever? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Tommy Lee Jones returns as United States Marshall Sam Gerard, the role that earned him an Academy Award, in this sequel to the 1993 blockbuster The Fugitive. Gerard has been assigned to escort a federal prisoner to a maximum security prison in Missouri. On the same flight is Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes), who has been arrested and charged with the murders of two Federal agents, though he insists he’s innocent. The plane is involved in an accident leading to a crash, and after helping to rescue some of the passengers, Sheridan escapes. The State Department informs Gerard that finding Sheridan and putting him back behind bars is a top priority, and Gerard sets out on his trail, with the very much uncalled-for assistance of eccentric FBI agent John Royce (Robert Downey Jr.). However, Gerard soon begins to wonder just how Sheridan became such an important man in the eyes of the government, while Sheridan is determined to find out who turned him in to the authorities.

My Take:
Allow me to go ahead and get this out of the way: is U.S. Marshals still cool to me now?
Don't Think So no way shake
That’s not me falling into the old-age cynicism trap – that’s just me seeing this movie after nearly two decades and with the viewing experience of having seen far better films in the same genre. So while I enjoyed watching this, it didn’t strike the same chord with me now as it did back then. And you know what? That’s okay!

I suspect most of us harbor the following sentiments when we revisit the media of our youth:
not as good bad um meh critic
Most movies and television shows you watched as a kid or a teen are probably not going to leave you with the same feelings of delight now that you’re an adult. But, again, that’s okay. Our viewing tastes and artistic discrimination should change as we age. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our childhood or teenage years’ favorite movies or television shows, but it does mean that what we thought was cool when we were 10, 12, 15, or 17 probably won’t be at the same level of coolness when we grow up.

That being said, I had fun watching U.S. Marshals this time around, and I suspect that’s what it was striving to be back in 1998 – an entertaining pre-summer popcorn flick. And if you don’t desire it to be anything but that, then you won’t be disappointed.

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The plot to U.S. Marshals is entertaining but admittedly paper thin and waxes predictable, especially in its second act. This is a movie where watching the characters do their thing takes precedence over the story they’ve been dropped into. Back in the day, I was new to this sort of movie, so the plot twists came as total surprises to me – but not so much now. The film seems like it’s trying to offer up a complex mystery plot but it’s as substantial as a bucket of movie popcorn. Sure, it’s fun, entertaining, and keeps you satisfied for a little while but, deep down, it’s just empty calories and doesn’t satiate no matter how badly you want it to.

As expected, U.S. Marshals stays true to its Fugitive roots by retaining some of the marshal characters from the first movie and introducing viewers to another man on the run. Here, Mark Sheridan (Wesley Snipes) is accused of murdering some federal agents. Sheridan is arrested but his prisoner transport plane crashes (echoing the infamous train crash in The Fugitive). This enables him to go on the lam to clear his name while U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) stays hot on his trail. But unlike last time when Gerard and his fellow marshals were free to do whatever they pleased to bring in their man, here they are shadowed by Special Agent John Royce (Robert Downey, Jr.). Thus, the film splits its time between Gerard uncovering the truth about Sheridan and Sheridan seeking to clear his name (or, in his words, be made “righteous”).

As stated, the plot is fluffy and forgettable but it does entertain. The characters avoid becoming stock figures as they manage to elicit enough sympathy to keep viewers invested. Likewise, the comradery between Gerard and his team of marshals is organic, and while their personalities clash at times, especially against Gerard’s hardheadedness, they are like family to one another. If one of them is hurt, attacked, or insulted, it’s as if the entire group was hurt, attacked, or insulted – that’s how tight their bond is and it’s a blast to watch. In the same way, most of the action set pieces are enjoyable. The aforementioned plane crash, for example, while trying to evoke a similar scene in The Fugitive, is intense and impressive in scale. Overall, the action scenes are tastefully inserted so the movie doesn’t feel too sparse nor overstuffed.

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However, the film tries a little too hard to run parallel to The Fugitive so it no longer feels like an homage but more like a mediocre clone. As stated, this movie’s story comes complete with yet another innocent man on the run, a large-scale disaster scene, sundry law enforcement figures who try to uncover the truth, and several showdowns where said fugitive and lawmen face off. While in The Fugitive these elements were presented as part of a fresh formula (though that was a remake of a 1960s television show of the same name), in U.S. Marshals it becomes a classic case of deja vu. I suppose if you had never seen The Fugitive, then these parallels would remain unknown. But for those of us who have seen the first movie, U.S. Marshals feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture a previously used formula but never quite hits the same notes.

That being said, I will give U.S. Marshals credit for not taking itself too seriously and maintaining a high entertainment value, especially in its first and third acts. Concerning the former, while this is a crime drama, it’s hard to take a story too seriously where, during Gerard’s introductory scene, we see him arresting neer-do-wells all while donning a chicken suit and delivering a KFC-inspired line in the gruffest, most deadpan way possible. It’s absurd, it’s hilarious, and it’s meant to be taken that way. I liked this introduction (or re-introduction, I suppose) to Gerard better than how we initially meet him in The Fugitive. Here, we instantly see two sides to his personality: one is that he’s clever, smart, and determined to see justice done, and the other is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In another way, this scene serves as a fairly accurate snapshot of the film as a whole – it’s serious but not too bleak as it knows when to crack a joke to ease the tension.

All of this contributes to the movie’s entertainment value as the plot itself is passable but it’s the characters who make this flick worth watching if only just for fun. As stated, the first and third acts are the movie’s strongest points, but most of the second act – especially its midsection – falls victim to the usual crime drama follow-the-clues type of plotting and incessant run-and-chase sequences. I started to get bored during this time in the movie, and to quote Sam Gerard, “I get cranky when I’m not having fun.” But the story does pick up near the end though the denouement is fairly easy to map out early on, especially if you’re no stranger to these types of films.

That being said, I feel like this was a case of having good actors in a mediocre film but doing their best with the material they were given. As a whole, the acting comes across as half-hearted at times, as if the actors realized they were in a semi-sinker and decided it wasn’t worth a full attempt. Collectively, it’s not a terrible effort but it’s definitely not a defining film for any of the top billed stars.

us-marshals-robert-downey-jr
This middling undercurrent is probably best exemplified by Robert Downey, Jr. who, in all fairness, I like as an actor. Here, he seemed disinterested and even checked out of character at times. Royce’s exchanges with Gerard offer some odd couple-esque moments that are genuinely funny, but essentially Royce is present to serve the role of the young, meddling whippersnapper. Downey does a passable job but this wasn’t a pivotal role. Likewise, anyone who has seen even a handful of these types of films will be able to spot the “surprise” regarding Royce’s character rather quickly. There are also moments when it feels (and looks) like Downey is physically present but not staying in character, as if he just walked in on the scene and decided to hang out, not interacting with anything or anyone except when delivering lines. In his defense, Downey is a better actor than this. One thing I keep in mind is that U.S. Marshals was filmed during a dark time in his life when Downey was dealing with some personal demons, so it’s possible he might not have been fully invested. (For the record, I’m glad Downey opted to get and stay clean. He’s very talented, so it’s great to see him taking advantage of the second chance he has been given.)

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In the same way, Wesley Snipes seems like he wants to get invested into his character as Mark Sheridan but never fully commits. To his credit, he at least appears more invested than Downey, and Sheridan’s chemistry with his girlfriend, Marie (Irene Jacob), seems genuine. Seeing as Sheridan is set up to be the protagonist, one basic trait I expect from all protagonists is that they have to be likable. Heroes shouldn’t be perfect but any hints of obnoxious airs or jerk-like tendencies get no points from me. Sheridan remains a likable guy who is determined to protect himself and clear his name. However, unlike Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive, Sheridan’s innocence isn’t apparent from the start; thus, it makes it difficult to side with him until later on. In the same way, Sheridan goes to questionable lengths to stay one step ahead of the law (something Dr. Kimble did his best not to do) but never intentionally tries to get innocent people hurt and even, as Gerard notes, goes out of his way not to kill people. Thus, he’s easy to eventually root for and Snipes delivers an average performance.

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Lastly, it’s only fair to scrutinize Tommy Lee Jones as Sam Gerard. Jones won an Oscar for the same role in The Fugitive and I believe that recognition was fairly warranted. While the same gruff charm is delivered here, it is more of the same from The Fugitive. Thus, if you loved Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, you will love him in U.S. Marshals. But if Gerard was not your favorite character in The Fugitive, then you won’t like him this time around either. Despite the lack of revised or evolved dynamic, I still enjoyed Gerard’s no-nonsense nature, dry wit, and smarts. He gives off the aura of not exactly being unapproachable, but you still better have a darn good excuse why you want to talk to him. To Gerard’s credit, he gets respect because he earns it, not because he demands it by acting like a jerk. In the same way, he takes his work personally as his fellow marshals are like his family and Gerard gladly assumes the role of the gruff, protective papa bear.

Likewise, we get a good “save the cat” moment that showcases a heart beneath Gerard’s rough, weathered exterior. (As a sidebar, the term “save the cat” comes from a book of the same name by Blake Snyder and refers to an inconsequential scene depicting the main character doing something to “save” someone or something, thus casting the character in a favorable light.) During the plane crash when the rest of the officers swim to safety, Gerard stays behind, at great risk to himself, to set the prisoners free as they are shackled and unable to escape. He works tirelessly, freeing the men by hand, until he’s forced to give up his efforts. Even while urged by others to save himself and leave the prisoners, Gerard views these men as human beings and refuses to willingly abandon them to a watery grave. This shows that, deep down, Gerard upholds human decency and mercy over justice: while it would have been easy to let these men die (they are prisoners, after all), Gerard tries to save as many as he can. Overall, it’s a great moment of showing us, not telling us, about the heart of his character.

However, Gerard slightly devolves in this movie as he is, at his core, a cerebral character, thinking first and shooting last. But in U.S. Marshals, he gets reduced to an action movie star where thinking is a secondary trait and running and shooting are the primary focus. Gerard is at his best when he’s mulling things over and thinking his way through a problem, but for much of the movie, he’s confined to running around, doing stunts, and barking lines. That’s not to say older actors can’t be in action films. By way of example, Colin Firth assumed the role of a highly intuitive spy who wasn’t afraid to get his hands bloody in Kingsman: The Secret Service and he excelled at it. So perhaps it comes down to the actor and his personality, temperament, and/or feelings towards a project. In U.S. Marshals, Jones doesn’t seem like he feels entirely comfortable being an action star but he makes an effort. In truth, he seems more at ease delving into Gerard as a person, showcasing his wit and intellect, rather than proving he can run, shoot, and jump with the best of them. Thus, his approach to this character is at its best in the film’s quieter moments and at its weakest when he’s participating in run-and-shoot sequences.

To be fair, it seems like Jones plays the same type of character in every movie. When I was a teenager, he was my favorite actor without question, but over the years he’s been replaced by other gents who I feel present more versatility. But he’s by no means on my no-watch list and there’s nothing that would stop me from checking out some of his more recent movies. To his credit, Jones looks like he’s having fun (or at least trying to have fun) in this role much like he did in The Fugitive. I wouldn’t call this a case of lightening striking twice but it’s a watchable performance. However, it feels more like a redux than a remix.

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As it stands, U.S. Marshals as a whole feels like it’s trying to repackage The Fugitive akin to wrapping a gift by reusing scraps of old wrapping paper – the content is technically new but the veneer is clearly recycled. It’s so strange to me now that, next to Men in Black, U. S. Marshals was my second favorite movie as a teenager. I honestly have no idea why as a good portion of this movie is the usual manhunt plot trope and waxes a bit insipid, especially during the second act. However, it’s not a terrible movie as it’s mostly entertaining and even ends on a smile-worthy, light-hearted note, which is rare for its genre. Overall, while I wouldn’t place this movie among my favorites anymore, I was still glad I checked it out if for nothing more than to relive one of my favorite teenage years flicks.

Content Breakdown: U.S. Marshals was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is frequent but not pervasive and chiefly employs PG and PG-13-level words, including religious exclamations. One character also spouts off a single f-word.

Violence – Most of the violence is confined to police-style violence, chiefly shootouts and images of gunshot wounds. One character is shot and dies, and this scene is rather drawn out as we watch the character expire on screen despite being given medical treatment. Crime scene photos of bodies with bloody bullet wounds and grainy, black and white security camera videos of a shooting are shown at different times throughout the movie but nothing ever turns gory. Elsewhere, a quick shot reveals a male body in a shower (from the chest up, so there is no nudity) with a slit neck, but this scene lasts only a second or two. Also, one character is physically tormented by another character while lying prone in bed. Lastly, the plane crash is a very intense sequence that involves explosions and peril. During these moments, one character suffers a heart attack (it’s never revealed if the character survives or not) and other characters are implied to have drowned (but their bodies are never shown).

Sexual Material – Essentially none. In a quick scene, a marshal glimpses several bikini-clad women being interviewed on a television show before Gerard tells him to turn it off. Elsewhere, two officers barge in on Marie while she is changing clothes in a dressing room, but she’s covered up and all we see is a portion of her back. Lastly, Sheridan and Marie kiss a few times but nothing ever becomes sexual or even sensual.

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe U.S. Marshals stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended due to the film’s story and content.

Older Children & Teens – Somewhat recommend, especially as a relatively clean action/suspense film for teens who are  starting to get their feet wet into the genre. Likewise, teen fans of Robert Downey, Jr. (who portrays Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) might be interested as this reflects some of his earlier work.

Young Adults & Adults – Somewhat recommended, especially if you’re nostalgic for some forgotten late-1990s popcorn flicks. Likewise, fans of the 1993 movie The Fugitive might want to give it a view as well as anyone who is a fan of the cast in general.

The Run-Down:
I don't know shrug meh
Overall, U.S. Marshals is one of these movies that doesn’t look better in hindsight. When I was a teenager and saw this for the first time, I was a newbie to the whole police-themed action/suspense thriller genre, so I thought it was great. But age and experience with better films have caused me to see this movie differently so it’s more of a mediocre attempt than a jaw-dropping masterpiece. That doesn’t mean U.S. Marshals is bad and I have good memories associated with it. In the end, I think that’s how it can best be appreciated – not as a work of incredible cinema or storytelling but as a solidly entertaining way to pass the time.

Final Verdict:
happy star movies ratinghappy star movies rating
(Two Stars out of Five)

Books & Reading · Publications · Story & Characters · Writing Insight

Reflections on “The Guardian” Trilogy


You can access direct links to the books of The Guardian trilogy and more info here on
The Guardian trilogy’s official page.

This month marks the end of a (miniature) era as I publish the final novel in The Guardian trilogy. These books have been my first foray into penning full-length novels and it’s been a fun adventure!

The idea for The Guardian came to me during the summer of 2005 while I was reading the Harry Potter series and re-watching the first season of Prison Break on DVD. For some reason, the two stories collided in my head and I asked myself, What would happen if Michael Scofield [the show’s protagonist] was a wizard? How would he break out of prison and why? Naturally, that weird idea blossomed into The Guardian trilogy, and it’s been a writing venture 10+ years in the making.

My first draft of The Guardian was penned entirely by hand, which I later copied onto my computer. Finally, after countless revisions, The Guardian was published in 2013 and I immediately went to work on its sequel, The Guardian Prophecy. This second book came together much faster for me, mainly because in between writing The Guardian I was already honing the plot outlines for the other two books. While the setting for The Guardian is chiefly confined to the Voror Council, The Guardian Prophecy had Alex and other characters to go “on the road” as he joins Head Healer Sunniva on a journey to find an exiled prophet. The Guardian Prophecy was finally published in 2015.

That left one final novel to tackle, The Guardian Wars. Much like The Guardian Prophecy, The Guardian Wars was easier to write as I had even more time to hon in on the best way to wrap up Alex’s story as well as deliver satisfying endings for the rest of the characters. From the beginning, I had certain plot points and character endings in mind (and, no, I won’t share them as they count as spoilers!). To be honest, not much changed as far as where Alex’s arc was supposed to end up, though the journey to get there certainly went through countless rounds of revision. But, in the end, I was pleased with how it all turned out.

Writing a trilogy certainly taught me a few things and it was a fun challenge! So what were some of the take-away lessons I gleaned from this experience?

1. Take planning seriously (but not too seriously).
I can see why, when asked about advice for writers, J.K. Rowling said she made a plan, ensuring she had a clear map of where she was going when it came to characters and plotting. And she’s right. One of the most important tasks a writer can do is  generate a good, solid outline for the story’s plot as well as a finalized character list. Doing so means you don’t have to get stuck making up details on the fly or forgetting where you’re going with your story. Planning is true for any mode of writing, especially for projects such as a trilogy as it’s not just one book that has a beginning-middle-end structure but a series that has to have beginning, middle, and end points – and you have to keep everything straight in each book and between books. Thus, seeing where you want to go is critical so you get to where you ultimately want to be.

But there’s is a flip side in that it’s possible to over-plan or, at the very least, stay rigidly close to an initial outline. While penning The Guardian, I had an outline I referred to while working on my handwritten draft and I followed it fairly closely. However, upon transferring the draft to the computer, I discovered that the draft was far too long and there were segments, sometimes entire chapters, that needed to be omitted indefinitely or even moved into another book. Even though I’m an organization stickler, it was fun to let the story have free reign at times. I still knew where I ultimately wanted Alex’s journey to go, so it was okay if the final product deviated from the original outline. So while I do take my story planning phase seriously, I don’t take it so seriously that I don’t allow the story to evolve beyond where I initially thought I might want it to go.

2. Writing is Re-Writing.
The rumors are true! Writers actually spend little time (relatively speaking) penning new, original content and spend more time reworking said original content, which includes revising, reorganizing, editing, and even omitting material. My own writing process goes a little something like this: outline/plan, compose a rough draft, read through the rough draft, make massive changes to the draft (rewriting or omitting portions as needed), then reading and revising, reading and revising until I’m happy with the final product. While writing an initial draft, I never make changes in terms of plot or story. I just follow my outline and allow the story to take a natural direction, even if that’s off the outline’s path.

Then, once I have a complete draft – one that goes from the first chapter to the last – I read through and make notes, chapter by chapter. These notes include questions to myself, continuity errors to check into and correct, sections that need clarification or clean up, and what seems to be working or not working and how to fix it. I repeat this process at least three times while also giving myself time to step away from the project so I’m not constantly reading the same material over and over. It’s like working a tricky crossword puzzle: sometimes you have to sit it aside for a while and pick it up later. Many times, the things that had been stumping you before come into clearer focus now.

3. Know How to Juggle.
Lastly, writing a trilogy has made me better appreciate the process of juggling multiple story threads and characters. It is a tricky feat with plenty of room for error if you’re not careful. Unlike writing a standalone novel where you have to make sure to keep track of your plot, pacing, characters, story world elements, and continuity for just one book, a trilogy requires you to do that for all three books individually as well as the trilogy as a whole.

For instance, when writing each book in The Guardian trilogy, I not only had to keep track of what was going on in terms of one book but also how it fit in with the other books. This included keeping characters’ biographical info straight from book to book, remembering spellings for terms or persons, and consistent world-building information. For example, I remember while initially writing The Guardian Prophecy, the Council’s Head Healer, Sunniva, says she’s going on a journey to visit an exiled prophet. At first, I wanted to make it sound like she had visited him once before, yet as the story went on, I wrote it as if she hadn’t seen him since he left the Council. I caught the continuity error and knew I had to decide on only one approach, which meant rewriting sections or scenes depending on the choice I made. In the end, I made a decision that wasn’t what my initial outline had spelled out but it made better sense in the context of the story. So, bottom line – would I attempt a trilogy again? Maybe, but I’d love to see what I can come up with for a standalone story!

I suppose a fair question now would be – what’s next? Currently, I’m working on a first draft of a fantasy novel entitled Kingdom of Ravens that is about a princess of a wintry kingdom who meets, befriends, and falls in love with a low-level thug and crime boss’ nephew of a neighboring city. I’m into the third and final part of the manuscript and it’s already taken a lot of side roads from my initial outline. But I love the characters, especially my leads, and the settings are fun to dive into. On top of this, I have numerous rough outlines I like to hone. But no matter what, I always make sure I have some sort of writing project in the works, one I’m physically writing and drafting and one I’m outlining.

Once again, I’m so happy to share my novels with my fellow readers, and I hope you have as much fun traveling with Alex Croft on his journey as I did writing it. While I am sad to close out this trilogy, which has been a staple of my daily writing workload for over a decade, I’m overjoyed to see it finally come to fruition and share it with fantasy lovers around the world!

You can access direct links to the books of The Guardian trilogy and more info here on The Guardian trilogy’s official page.

Books & Reading · Publications · Story & Characters

“The Guardian Wars” is Now Out!


I’m so excited to finally share with you the third and final book in The Guardian Trilogy, The Guardian Wars. It’s available now both in print and for Kindle!

Direct Link (Paperback): goo.gl/Ofv4Vn
Direct Link (Kindle): goo.gl/rkbsFD

Below is the book’s description:
After miraculously surviving torture at Rastaban’s hands, Handler Alex of Croft knows the hour grows short as war among the Realms draws closer. Mustering his friends and unexpected allies, Alex assumes the role of the prophesied Halcyon and decides to cut off his enemy at the place where it all began, the infamous prison Erebus and home to the Gates of the Dead. The Guardian Wars concludes Alex of Croft’s journey as a man of divided bloods. But can he be a shining light in a dark place or will the darkness finally consume him?

For more info, check out The Guardian Trilogy tab above!

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Queen of Hearts”

Queen of Hearts book cover
The Story:
[From GoodReads:]
As Princess of Wonderland Palace and the future Queen of Hearts, Dinah’s days are an endless monotony of tea, tarts, and a stream of vicious humiliations at the hands of her father, the King of Hearts. The only highlight of her days is visiting Wardley, her childhood best friend, the future Knave of Hearts — and the love of her life. When an enchanting stranger arrives at the Palace, Dinah watches as everything she’s ever wanted threatens to crumble. As her coronation date approaches, a series of suspicious and bloody events suggests that something sinister stirs in the whimsical halls of Wonderland. It’s up to Dinah to unravel the mysteries that lurk both inside and under the Palace before she loses her own head to a clever and faceless foe.

My Take: I’ll just start with this – this is not your grandma’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retelling. This is not even your mom’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retelling. This is more like if Wednesday Addams decided to retell Alice, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is, indeed, “dark and gloomy.”

The best way I can summarize the tone of this novel is if you had a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tore out all of the pages pertaining to Alice, extracted the pages dealing with the Queen of Hearts, put those in a blender, mixed in random pages from any of Neil Gaiman’s books, and liquefied. What you would be left with would be a dark, curious, pulpy smoothie that may not be to all reading tastes. (Note: Please don’t actually put book pages in a blender. A good smoothie does not paper make.)

Myself, I was split on this novel: there were portions and characters I really enjoyed and there were others I thought were just okay or didn’t work for me. But as the good and more enjoyable portions outweighed the less enjoyable parts, I decided to award this book three solid stars rather than two on Goodreads.

For starters, I want to give a quick shout out to this cover (because I’m a sucker for a good/cool cover), which actually looks better in person. I own a hardcover edition and the dust jacket has a brushed, suede-like quality to it, which I really like as it doesn’t look like the typical cheap, glossy dust jacket you more commonly see. Plus, the novel’s title is in raised red letters that grab your eye. The playing card image design is ultra-cool and the level of detail on Dinah’s face is elegant even though it’s rendered entirely using shadowy shades save for some very appropriate crimson lipstick.

Overall, the physical presentation of this book is eye-catching and tastefully done, so serious kudos to the book’s designer and the art department.
Applause clap critic

Now back to the novel. My favorite aspects of this book were some of its settings and Charles, Dinah’s mad brother. Wonderland Palace is gorgeously described and I could easily imagine it in my mind. For me, large-scale indoor settings can be hard to render on the page because the question that usually arises is how much detail should be shown. On one end of the description spectrum, you can give too many details and the reader feels bogged down with unnecessary floor plans and lists of decor. On the other end, the reader feels like the action is occurring in a black box with no details to ground it in. Thankfully, Queen of Hearts avoids either trap and allows readers to easily imagine its principle settings without feeling disconnected or unduly burdened. I could perfectly envision the throne room, chapel, and even the red stained glass windows of Charles’ bedroom. While this might seem like a minor point to some readers, I really do appreciate good description that makes me devise a strong imagining of what I’m reading.

Also, I enjoyed some of the characters albeit not most of them. Dinah, the lead character who – as we all know – is no heroine, at least tries to do the right thing at times. But you can clearly see the inner workings of a villainess in the making. For now, she’s easy to sympathize with due to the way her father ignores and abuses her. Her anger at him is completely understandable as is her fear. Knowing she is the future queen, she agrees, for a time, to play along with his twisted mind games for the sake of replacing him on the throne. However, I thought the king was a little too one-sided as he was just purely evil with no redeeming qualities. Even a villain can have traits that, at least in isolation, are admirable, such as the ability to plan, lead, or exert reason or intelligence. But the King of Hearts is just despicable and, quite frankly, doesn’t even seem like that good of a king. While I didn’t hate his character, I hated the person he was yet at the same time I wasn’t enthralled by his level of villainy.

My favorite character is Dinah’s little mad brother, Charles, who, in his spare time, makes unique hats. Though he doesn’t get many scenes, the moments he does share on the page with his sister are solemnly precious. He is a character of pure innocence who has been cast aside by both his father and the world. Yet his childlike wonder and creative eye are endearing in a non-saccharine way. In fact, I actually liked him slightly more than Dinah as Dinah could have a whiny, selfish streak that didn’t quite make me a fan at times. Yet Charles is a real sweetheart. But other than Dinah and Charles, none of the other characters were particularly memorable, including Dinah’s love interest, Wardley, who seemed tacked on just for the sake of having a love interest.

In the same way, this novel tries to reinvent the Wonderland wheel in a way that I suspect may not appeal to everyone. Die-hard fans of the original source material might be appalled at the treatment its characters receive here, but I, for one, didn’t quite have such a harsh reaction. Some of the adaptations work, such as turning the various castes of Cards into actual people with various functions unique to their caste. However, some toe the line to being phoned in, such as making the Cheshire Cat a human character who sports a toothy grin and is even creepier than his feline counterpart and causing Charles to be a stand in for the Mad Hatter. Therefore, this doesn’t seem so much like a retelling as a re-imagining, which is fine provided you’re willing to not going to compare this novel to the source material of which it really bears only a pale resemblance.

Likewise, this novel carries a very dark tone, almost befitting a Gaiman tale with the same creep factor of an adult Gaiman tale as opposed to one more geared for younger readers (think more Neverwhere than The Graveyard Book). Some of the darker elements here work, such as turning the King of Hearts into an abusive father, but some are a bit too much, such as the Black Tower, which becomes a principle setting halfway through the book. Here, the kingdom’s most nefarious denizens are imprisoned but their living conditions and treatment are appalling. The novel hones in on one particular prisoner who is literally bound by poisonous roots that work their way into her body cavities. (And if that description made your hair curl, that’s nothing to the details the novel provides.) Creepy settings deserve creepy descriptions and I take no issue with that. But sometimes paragraph upon paragraph of such starts to feel overdone, and this is especially true in the chapters (and there are several) set in the Black Tower.

Furthermore, this novel just seems to end. I suppose one might call it a cliffhanger but, rather than leave readers with even some slight degree of closure, the action just stops. It’s like if you were watching a Jason Bourne-style car chase and the film just cuts off in mid-action. It’s a bit jarring and I wasn’t entirely happy with the way the novel ended though it does force you to read the follow up novel, which is what any book ending should do. But for me, it simply slams on the brakes rather than come to a smooth, complete stop.

Content: This novel is definitely intended for teens and adults, and probably older teens at that.
Language – Essentially none, other than a few proclamations of “oh gods.”

Violence – There are scenes of bloody violence, from minor stabbings to detailed decapitations. Torture is both eluded to and described in the chapters set in the Black Tower, and while for the most part we’re never fully told what the torture consists of, it’s not too difficult to deduce that it’s unbelievably inhumane and relentless. However, some prisoners are shown being tortured, such as in the case of one female prisoner who is, essentially, physically assaulted by plant roots.

Sexual Content – While there are no sex scenes, there are times when Dinah and Wardley kiss and fondle each other while clothed, but it never leads to anything further. Dinah imagines what it might feel like to have Wardley sleep with her (in a sexual context) but her thoughts don’t go any further than that single, non-graphic musing. Some of the Card soldiers and wardens of the Black Tower display sexual menace towards Dinah and other female characters, thus rape or sexual favors are implied as a form of coercion but nothing is ever shown. Lastly, some characters make lewd comments (such as one tower guard remarking that female prisoners don’t need fingers or other body parts in order to deliver sexual favors).

The Run-Down:
Um afraid scared critic
Overall, Queen of Hearts will be an acquired taste and, personally, I was split in my feelings about it. The descriptions and some of the characters I really enjoyed, and it does serve as a fast-paced read. However, the darker elements were a bit too dark for my liking and the abrupt ending made me feel like I was missing something. In the end, fans of anything Alice will probably check this out though be forewarned – this isn’t a strict retelling of the original source material. While some readers might enjoy this stark change of pace, some might prefer a more character-faithful retelling.

Media

Movie Review – “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”

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Introduction:
I was attracted to this film solely due to the presence of Chris Pine, of whose acting work I’m starting to dive into. Plus, I enjoy a good action/thriller provided its story isn’t so redundant that I have the whole plot figured out before the end. While this movie was (I believe) supposed to christen a new franchise that never materialized, it holds its own though it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: Based on the character created by bestselling author Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan is a global action thriller set in the present day. This original story follow a young Jack (Chris Pine) as he uncovers a financial terrorist plot. The story follows him from 9/11, through his tour of duty in Afghanistan, which scarred him forever, and into his early days in the Financial Intelligence Unit of the modern CIA where he becomes an analyst, under the guardianship of his handler, Harper (Kevin Costner). When Ryan believes he’s uncovered a Russian plot to collapse the United States economy, he goes from being an analyst to becoming a spy and must fight to save his own life and those of countless others, while also trying to protect the thing that’s more important to him than anything, his relationship with his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley)

My Take:
Based on my understanding, Jack Ryan was originally a literary character created by author Tom Clancy; however, that’s as far as my knowledge goes. Therefore, my judgment of this film is based solely on the movie itself and nothing else. To its credit, the film stands on its own as its story is self-contained, meaning it doesn’t require outside knowledge of any particular characters, events, or setting in order for it to make sense. How Clancy fans will perceive or enjoy this movie, I can’t say; but, for me, it was mostly entertaining.

For the sake of comparison, Shadow Recruit is a bit like a second-rate Bourne film minus the thorny moral conundrums the lead character in the latter faces. Instead, what we’re presented with here is a typical international intrigue thriller that holds its own but brings nothing new to its genre. In reality, this movie reminded me of a really good “24” episode – not a great episode, not a weak episode, but a good, solid episode. I loved “24” back in the day, so this is a compliment! However, it does go to show how generic Shadow Recruit is at its core. That being said, the story’s grounding in the topic of real-world terrorism was an appropriate approach and enabled it to feel realistic, albeit keep in mind that, as a thriller, threats are always amplified for the sake of drama and dramatic tension. To its credit, Shadow Recruit never turns preachy in terms of its politics but keeps its focus on the titular hero, who is a relatable, likeable, everyman character finding himself in extraordinary (and extraordinarily dangerous) circumstances.

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That brings me to the truly redeeming aspect of this movie: Chris Pine’s performance. Originally released in 2014, this movie comes on the heels of Pine’s most visible role at the time as the young Captain Kirk in two Star Trek reboots (Star Trek [2009] and Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]). I can see what he was trying to do with a role like this, seeking to branch out and explore other genres, and I give kudos to that. However, to be honest, Chris Pine is a better actor than what this role offered to him.

Years later, Pine actually apologized for this movie as he didn’t feel it was a good start to a new franchise nor did justice to the character of Jack Ryan. But I respectfully disagree as it’s not Pine’s fault. In reality…
Not you it's bad writing critic
In truth, Pine’s tackling of this performance reminded me a lot of how Matt Damon handled the role of Max in Elysium where his performance outshone a rather generic, average movie. Because neither movie allowed their male leads to branch out, they seemed confined, unable to dig as deeply into their respective characters as you can tell they wanted to. One thing that strikes me about Pine as an actor is that he always injects genuine, organic emotion into his characters. Anytime he’s on screen, it never feels like he’s phoning it in or reciting lines just to collect a paycheck. He makes his characters seem like they could actually exist: no matter the genre, there’s always a part of Pine’s delivery that makes his characters feel grounded and relatable, much like a real person. For me, that’s the mark of a good actor: if you can make me believe the character you’re playing could be real, then you’ve done your job as an actor. Pine certainly tries to do his job here but the script, unfortunately, holds him back.

By way of (a weird) example, it’s like if you hired interior designer David Bromstad from HGTV’s Color Splash to paint your kitchen blue, and he shows up and starts telling you all of the cool ways he could totally renovate the space and spice up your dining room, living room, etc. But you insist that, nope, all you want is for him to paint your kitchen blue. What a waste of a creative talent that would be, and it would be to your detriment.

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In the same way, I feel like Chris Pine was itching to dive into his character but the script held him back and kept him confined to delivering the generic performance the movie called for. For instance, in one scene, Ryan laments about taking a life in an act of self-defense, but his CIA handler, Harper (Kevin Costner), essentially tells him to get over it and that he’ll never used to killing people. This was a scene where I felt like Pine was wanting to take it somewhere deeper, but, instead, the script just brushed it aside. There are other moments where I sensed, if he had his way, he would have developed Jack Ryan differently or injected more emotional depth or moral complexity into him. But the script just cuts Pine off. It’s a real shame and I think, had Pine been given more to work with, this could have been a really good movie rather than an average one. In short, this was a classic case of a good actor restrained by a mediocre script: Pine did what he could with it, but it was to the movie’s detriment that it didn’t allow him to do more. [P.S.: If Chris Pine ever wanted to paint my kitchen, he’s more than welcome. ;)]

As far as the other characters are concerned, they’re okay and nothing to write home about (or, in this case, devote much blog space to). I’ve never been a Kevin Costner fan (and if you are, that’s cool) and his role as Harper is fine – not great but fine. He’s the typical older mentor trope you see in these sorts of films, though he spends more time working as an active agent than trying to teach Ryan the ropes, especially seeing as Ryan isn’t a field agent until he’s forced into the role. I think more could have been made of their relationship, making it a stronger mentor/protegee pairing, but, again, the script either couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate it. Kenneth Branagh plays a Russian villain trope, so here was yet another case of a good actor stuck in a mediocre role (after all, he did play King Henry V and Gilderoy Lockheart!). Lastly, I’m not familiar enough with Keira Knightley’s work to fairly judge her, but out of everyone else here, her part seemed a little phoned in. Cathy’s chemistry with Ryan didn’t entirely feel authentic coming from her and she is eventually reduced to a damsel in distress figure. So, as a whole, the other leads’ performances were fair but ultimately unmemorable.

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Story-wise, Shadow Recruit doesn’t touch on any new ground and is a pretty standard post-9/11 thriller spy story. Ryan is brought in by the CIA under one premise but soon finds himself working as an undercover agent (with no training, mind you). He’s smart, adaptable, but, again, isn’t allowed to grapple with deep emotions or ethical questions. Likewise, the trailers  misrepresent the final product (though trailers tend to do that in varying degrees). In some ways, it’s a good misrepresentation: the trailer relies heavily on action set pieces but the movie isn’t that chocked full of them and actually shows restraint in that regard, which I liked. On the downside, the surprise you suspect might happen never does, which is a shame because it would have made for a cool plot twist.

To be fair, it’s not as if this movie has a terrible story, but Shadow Recruit sticks with a tried-and-true formula and pulls no punches. That will either bore you or interest you, depending on how well you like its genre. If you love stories akin to “24,” then this will ring familiar to you but probably won’t disappoint. But if you like seeing morally complex characters engage surprising, even shocking, situations, then Shadow Recruit will be found to be lacking though it’s not a time waster to watch. Ultimately, it entertains and I did find myself eager to see what would happen despite there being no big surprises, reveals, or plot twists. Also in its favor, this film relies more on suspense rather than large, loud, action set pieces; so if you’re not a fan of the latter, then you might enjoy this movie for that, too. In the end, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit accomplishes what it probably set out to do – entertain audiences with a suspense-driven thriller complete with appropriate doses of action.

Content Breakdown: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was given a PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is minimal with some PG words and a few harsher PG-13 words, chiefly the sh-word and a single f-word.

Violence – Surprisingly, for an action/thriller, this film sports minimal scenes of actual violence. Instead, for the most part, characters are placed in suspenseful, perilous situations that sometimes involve shootouts (with no or minimal blood), on-foot chases, and car chases. A few characters are stabbed or shot but little to no blood is shown. Another character is shown with bomb-making paraphernalia and there is talk of a terrorist attack being planned on American soil. Also, television news images of the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center are briefly shown. Lastly, one character is involved in a helicopter explosion that leaves the character severely wounded but alive.

Sexual Material – None in terms of sex scenes or nudity. In one scene, Jack is seen in bed, shirtless, with Cathy but nothing occurs between them other than a kiss (though it’s worth noting they’re living together as an unmarried couple). The couple shares other kisses throughout the film but no such interactions lead to anything further. Lastly, it’s implied that one character is a womanizer, but nothing is ever shown to this effect other than he tries to flirt with a lady over dinner by making non-crass small talk.

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended as this film is geared strictly for older audiences.

Older Children & Teens – Recommended as a relatively clean action/thriller movie but more so for teens rather than anyone under 13 as it’s a safe bet anyone younger (unless they’re fans of Pine thanks to the Trek reboots) would probably not be attracted to this.

Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for fans of the genre in general. While probably nothing here will wow or surprise you, it’s still an entertaining story albeit it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

The Run-Down:
steve-carell-not-bad-the-office okay good
Overall, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a decent action/thriller – good, but not terrible or great. I sense it was intended to kick off a Jack Ryan franchise staring Chris Pine that never materialized, but that’s probably for Pine’s benefit as he deserves better roles than what this movie offered him. Without being tied to the franchise, he’s free to pursue better and more challenging material (case in point – Hell or High Water). Again, the fault here lies with the script rather than Pine’s performance but, to the story’s credit, it does have enough thrills to entertain until the end. It simply lacks that extra something special to make it stand out among its peers.

Final Verdict:
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(Three out of Five Stars)