Much-anticipated “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Paolini is Rather Plain – Partial Review

Early pages of derivative plot forego author’s penchant for character in effort to set up something bigger

Growing up almost as much a fan of Christopher Paolini’s first novel Eragon as I was of Harry Potter, his long-gestating sci-fi project, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (TSIASOS), was destined to join my to-read pile. img_20200610_234000As part of a Shelf Awareness promotion I was afforded the opportunity to read a partial galley of Paolini’s new book ahead of its wide release date on September 15, 2020. I was giddy with excitement, especially considering that the full novel is listed at nearly 900 pages on Amazon. For weeks I contemplated how much of the story I would get to read before anyone else.

Come to find, the partial galley I received was only 157 pages of the finished manuscript, which was just enough to meet the protagonist of TSIASOS, Kira Návarez, and witness the initial days following her first contact with an alien species.

You see, Kira is a xenobiologist working for one of Earth’s colonization corporations. Her job is to get shipped out among the stars to identify, catalog, and prepare new worlds for the human species. She finds it rewarding, if tedious, but she’s also willing to leave her job behind if it means setting down some roots. That is until the last day of her mission on the planet Adrasteia when a biological anomaly on the planet’s surface requires her to make an investigative trip. At the site of the anomaly she finds an alien relic and, more importantly, an alien.

Cue quarantine.

Sadly, Paolini doesn’t seem to tread any new sci-fi ground in the early pages of his newest novel. The plot of every first contact film and book plays out as Kira is put into isolation. The isolation methods weren’t perfect because of extenuating circumstances (which also happens to be the literal name of one of the interplanetary ships), so further complications arise and Kira is subjected to tests and study, during which time she realizes that her contact with the alien (forthwith called “xeno”) has affected her in surprising ways.

The saving grace behind Paolini’s rehashing of existing tropes is that he resolves the isolation, tests, and fear of the xeno fairly quickly so that he can introduce the reader to the greater story: one that involves the threat of another, far more advanced alien species known only as “graspers” and their strange connection to the xeno Kira encountered on Adra.

However, while speed helps to move past cliched plot points, it also results in an unfavorable number of stilted dialogue moments and exposition dumps, which is highly uncharacteristic of Paolini’s writing. Throughout his Inheritance Cycle, one can actually read Paolini mature as a writer (the first entry came out when he was 18, and the last when he was 27). Across his first four novels he develops an innate aptitude for knowing when to “show” something to his readers instead of “tell” them about it. His characters from Eragon had tangible personalities and shared witty, uncertain, or humorous conversations, supplemented by thoroughly described, evocative settings. The characters of Kira and her colleagues in TSIASOS are flat. Even when they show emotion, the reactions at best lack nuance or at worst seem to be almost entirely nonsensical. The setting descriptions of TSIASOS sometimes retain the flair of Eragon—for example, an early description of Adra and its massive gas giant neighbor—but for the most part descriptions are rushed and barely sufficient to orient the reader. This is especially true when discussing the technologies of Kira’s reality. Acronyms like “FTL” (faster than light) and terms like “Markov drive” (a type of faster than light engine) are important to the plot, but they come without definition and sometimes without context. Whether this lack of immersive writing is a product of Paolini trying to tell the story similar to how a scientist might observe events or whether it’s a necessity due to the length of the novel has yet to be seen.

So much still needs consideration because, again, the partial galley only included 157 pages. Perhaps it’s unfair to weigh TSIASOS against the Eragon books, especially when I’ve only read a fraction of the former. Eragon was a story played out over four novels, right? And it was fantasy, not sci-fi.

Yet, even as I contemplate whether the two should be compared due to differences in form and genre, I’m struck by their similarities in structure. Both begin with a young protagonist who discovers a unique and powerful object: Eragon discovers a dragon egg and Kira discovers an alien relic/xeno. That powerful object results in a loss—that I won’t spoil here for either book—, followed by the realization that strange and powerful beings seek the powerful object. I find these parallels in plot points to be rather discouraging.

I certainly won’t make my final verdict on To Sleep in a Sea of Stars just yet. There is still plenty more to read of Kira Návarez when her full story is released in September. For now I will continue to wait and wonder whether or not Christopher Paolini turns out to be a one-trick pony.

*I did not receive compensation or promotion in exchange for this review.


Redundant Middle and Far-Fetched Ending Make “The Breakdown” Disappointing Thriller

B.A. Paris writes her second novel with means and motive in mind, but gives little thought to proper characterization

Considered to be “One of the Most Anticipated Thriller Novels of 2017” by Bustle, the second novel from bestselling author B.A. Paris was a tough one for me to read.

The BreakdownThe Breakdown opens on Cass Anderson, a schoolteacher who lives in a small hamlet near the wood, on a stormy night as she’s driving home. She takes the shortcut home through the wood despite promising her husband Matthew that she wouldn’t, but she soon realizes how lucky she was to not have crashed in the treacherous conditions. Someone smarter than her had pulled over in a layby to await help or wait out the storm. It isn’t until the next day Cass hears on the news that the car she’d seen had been driven by her new friend Jane – and that the woman had been murdered.

Cass feels incredible guilt at not having stopped to help Jane because then she’d still be alive. Or perhaps, she wonders, would the killer have gotten them both?

It’s this horrible thought that makes Cass grow anxious and suspicious of everything around her. Her anxiety leads to stress, which leads to forgetfulness. Or is the forgetfulness actually the result of early-onset dementia, just like her mother? She can’t tell her husband because she’d promised him she wouldn’t take the shortcut home and she’d never told him about her family history of dementia. So she must figure it out alone if she’s in danger. The only problem is she might not even be able to trust herself.

It sounds interesting, but I’m sorry to say it’s not.

The first twenty pages offer a premise that quickly outstays its welcome. By page fifty I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the same three things: a woman was murdered, Cass feels guilty and anxious, Cass is having increasing lapses in memory. B.A. Paris wants the reader to know that something is very wrong, but once the answer of “early-onset dementia” (EOD) is presented, I literally scoffed.

The memory alone might have suggested EOD, but coupled with the anxiety and paranoia Cass begins exhibiting in regards to the murder I started guessing schizophrenia. In fact, the idea of debilitating mental illness had become so engrained in my mind—thanks to the incessant reminders provided by the author—that after the first hundred pages I half expected the murderer to be Cass.

And then everything about the murder stops. The focus of the novel narrows to Cass and the apparent decline of her mind. The silent calls continue, but Cass stops referencing back to the murder. Her desire to see the killer caught evaporates. Every situation from page 100 forward is meant to detract from the reliability of our narrator. It’s effective, but once again so infuriatingly redundant and not at all what I expect in a thriller.

When the twist finally came—in glorious deus ex machina fashion—I craved the excitement promised by a “psychological thriller” so much that I stayed up reading into the early morning. I tore through the end of the book that had taken me over a month to get even halfway through, and then I set aside the book and got angry. Of course, I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story, but suffice to say that even though everything is laid out and explained, the reader had no chance of figuring out the far-fetched ending.

Half the fun of thrillers and mysteries is the process of putting the clues together for yourself, but only knowing the truth when the protagonist does, or beating yourself up for not having seen it sooner. I reacted by wanting to beat up B.A. Paris for making it impossible. She had the means and motive developed, but the characterization was absent. There were no early hidden hints of whom it might be, only the verdict in the final pages.

Thankfully The Breakdown is easy summer fare. The prose is fluid enough, even if the characters weren’t. Most of the time I felt like I was reading template characters, albeit with only mildly cliché dialogue. It could easily be devoured over the course of a weekend vacation.

But why would you want to?

Books, D&D Podcast, Film

A Week of (Relative) Rest in Lieu of “Atomic Blonde”

Film Score: TBD

I’d originally planned on posting a review of Atomic Blonde this week, but I decided to take some time off from film to work on other projects instead. So if you see Charlize Theron kicking butt this weekend — or if you want to comment on any other movies — leave a message in the comments below!

Atomic Blonde

If you’d like to hear about some of the other projects/thoughts on my plate, continue reading. In addition to some things I’m hoping I’ll get to share with you soon, I’ve got a big announcement that I’m very excited about.

Upcoming Book Reviews

For a blog that touts its film AND book reviews, it’s been sorely lacking in book reviews. I’d mentioned last week that I don’t give my reviewed books a rating because I become invested in them — both bad and good.

The Breakdown by B. A. Paris is one of those less than stellar books in which I’ve invested a significant amount of time. I started it almost 2 months ago as an Advanced Reader Copy, and though the prose is easy enough to read, the premise got worn out so quickly that I dreaded sitting down to read it. So the days have stretched on, and still I haven’t finished it. Even though I want to finish it, if only so I can give a thorough review. So expect One of the Most Highly Anticipated Thriller Novels of 2017 by Bustle” to be my next review.

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein will be after that. I got my Advance Reader Copy a little late (two days after public release), but ever since I heard about this sci-fi novel set in 2147, where teleportation is a common means of travel, I’ve been eagerly anticipating its release. It might just be enough to help me finish The Breakdown.

“Art” You Not Entertained?

I also spent a little time earlier this week revisiting my art skills. Every week I get together with some friends of mine to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e, but one of our group was called up for military tour with the Army. He was always the one making sure we were going to meet each week and he really enjoyed playing.

Yesterday was his birthday, and though we couldn’t celebrate with him, we made him a care package and each member of the D&D group tossed in a card. I wanted to give him something special, so I drew his RPG character.

Tim the Enchanter.png

Tim the Enchanter is a tiefling wizard inspired by the character of the same name from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I couldn’t remember all the details of my buddy’s D&D version, but I thought I’d make him happy-go-lucky with sparklers instead of a fireball for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed birthday card.

Which I think fits with our group as a whole. As I say, my friends and I get together every week to play Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve been doing it for over a year now and we have so much fun playing that sometimes we wind up doubled over from laughter. More than once we’ve considered recording ourselves just so we can have it to playback our nonsense.

But we’ve decided to take it one step further…

Which Brings us to the BIG Announcement…

My D&D group will soon be launching a Live Play 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Podcast!

PHB Podcast Logo

I’ve really come to enjoy podcasts as a medium over the past few years with shows like The Joe Rogan Experience or The Dollop. But when my group and I found out there was a market for D&D, we decided to try our hand at our own brand of podcasting.

We’re still testing the waters and figuring out what works/what doesn’t. So we’re recording test episodes as we finish up our current campaign. Look for those to be posted once a week starting next Tuesday!

Again, we’re still testing the waters. Please give us feedback so that when we officially launch, the ball will already be rolling.

TL;DR – I’ve got The Breakdown and The Punch Escrow book reviews coming soon, I drew a tiefling for my Army buddy, and my D&D group is launching a podcast!

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the weekend.


Technical Sights and Sounds Aren’t Enough to Make “Dunkirk” Worthwhile

Christopher Nolan’s war epic is immersive art but devoid of much-needed historical and dramatic context

Film Score: 6/10

After Dunkirk ended, I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts and wound up talking to a gentleman in the next row. He said he’d worked in film and studied World War II. When asked what he thought of the film, he said, “If you didn’t know anything about Dunkirk coming in, you wouldn’t learn a thing.”

Fionn Whitehead is one of 400,000 men waiting to evacuate in Dunkirk

I’d done some mild research before my viewing, so I knew the history. After several failed attempts by the Allied forces to break the German advance through France, British and French troops were forced to evacuate from the port town of Dunkirk on the northern end of the English Channel. German forces had surrounded the area and threatened to break through before an evacuation could be organized, prompting Britain to consider the possibility of conditional surrender. But in one of the most widely debated decisions of the war, the German forces halted for three days to regroup and ensure the Allies couldn’t break through the line. This was enough time to set a defensive perimeter – held mainly by the French – while British naval ships and smaller private vessels ferried over 338,000 Allied troops off the beach.

However, as the gentleman in my theater commented, if you didn’t know any of this going into the movie, you weren’t going to leave much the wiser. All the viewer learns is that the Germans are drawing close and the men can’t get off the beach fast enough, with a few additional lines to hint at Britain’s surrender. There’s no historical context. The importance of this “colossal military disaster” (Winston Churchill) isn’t examined until the final few moments of the film. And the three different timelines of the Mole, Sea, and Air are so confusing it took me half the movie to sort them out.

But Christopher Nolan wasn’t aiming for a history lesson or a documentary. He wanted to place viewers in the midst of the Dunkirk evacuation and immerse them in the sights and sounds of that beach. He wanted to create an experience.


Dunkirk was shot using 70mm IMAX cameras, which means the frame is twice as wide as normal film, creating expansive shots that, according to Nolan, are like “virtual reality without the goggles.” The format allows him to capture the vastness of sea and sky, the endless expanse of beach and foamy surf, and the thousands of men standing in rank waiting to be evacuated. It truly is visually stunning, which is why Warner Bros. has made Dunkirk the largest 70mm film release in a quarter-century.

The sounds are technically wonderful and add to the immersive feeling. The groaning of ships, the shuffling of men, the scream of planes, and the whistling of incoming weapons all contribute to the experience Nolan is trying to create. In the first ten minutes of the film all you can hear are the sounds of war, while the men remain virtually silent. Humanity has been swallowed whole, with only one lone voice crying out in desperation, “Where’s the bloody air force?” The opening sequence is amazing and I love it. If you go to see Dunkirk in theaters it should be because of this.

But after that the men continue to speak very sparingly, and suddenly the sounds of war give way to an incessant soundtrack that refuses to let you forget that the situation is supposed to be suspenseful. Hans Zimmer has recently developed a nasty habit of scoring films by giving each section of his orchestra a single bar of perpetually repeating notes and then introducing them one at a time. About every twenty seconds he’ll add a blaring brass note or synthetic run and call it complex. It’s annoying, loud, and numbing.

Ultimately that’s what happened with the whole film: I went numb to it. The sound mixing was excellent and will almost certainly win awards, but after an hour I’d already heard it all before. The cinematography is wonderful to behold and also award-worthy, but by the end of the film I’d already seen the beach fifty different ways and the ocean fifty others. Nolan’s desire to immerse viewers in the film worked wonderfully for the first ten to fifteen minutes. After that the awe wore off and I found myself needing a reason to continue the experience.


Not even the cast of typically excellent actors was convincing enough to return some feeling to my viewing experience. The script just wasn’t built to foster connections between the characters and viewers, eschewing dialogue and dramatic context wherever possible. Mark Rylance delivered the strongest performance as calm and steadfast Mr. Dawson. Fionn Whitehead in the lead of Tommy was a close runner-up; he handled his lack of lines with aplomb. And other than a cringe-worthy final scene, I’ll even give admit that Harry Styles can act. They did everything they could with a script that wasn’t meant to do anything except demonstrate man’s survival.

I wanted Dunkirk to be better. As art it was fresh and intriguing, but as a film I found it overwhelmingly underwhelming. The sounds and the visuals and the soundtrack all clamored for attention, but after the first fifteen minutes I had little reason to stay. Even though I was successfully immersed in Nolan’s creation, I wasn’t learning any history, I wasn’t learning about the characters, so I just stopped caring.

If you find yourself wanting to see Dunkirk, see it in theaters and definitely see it in 70mm or in one of 31 theaters showcasing 70mm IMAX format. As a piece of technical art I’d give 8.5/10 for the film, and even higher if it weren’t for Zimmer’s soundtrack which really is that irritating. Otherwise I’d say you can skip it. As the gentleman from my theater put it: “I didn’t like this one.”



Books, Film, Uncategorized

How to Use My Reviews

Happy Monday!

I know I didn’t post a review this past week, and even though that might have been a bummer for everyone, I thought it might be better to write a post explaining how (and why) I rate the way I do.

After five films reviewed, I figured posting a scale would help readers understand my review at a glance:

10 –  So good I’ll be paying to see it in theater twice.
  9 –  Definitely something you should watch in theater.
  8 –  Highly recommend it, but if you miss it in theater not a big deal.
  7 –  I recommend it, but wait to catch this on home video.
  6 –  If it’s on TV or Netflix, it’s not a total waste of time.
  5 –  If you never see it, you won’t be missing out.
  4 –  Not worth your time.
  3 –  Not worth my time.
  2 –  Why was this movie made?
  1 –  I’ll be suing for my money back.

And for those of you who followed me hoping to read more book reviews and wondering what my scale is for those…

I don’t have one.

I spent a full day trying to think of a good way to structure a rating system for books and came to the conclusion it’s better not to have one. When I watch film, I either like it or I don’t. There are very few instances where I dislike a film but appreciate the art behind it (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one).

With literature, I can easily think of a dozen books that I did not enjoy reading but still appreciated the author’s style or tone or character development. I don’t have the same level of objectiveness for novels as I do for film. It takes me two hours to consume a movie. It takes me two weeks to properly absorb a book for critique. I become invested in what I’m reading. The best I can do is write out my thoughts and let others decide if the book will be worth their time.

So whether you’re looking for film or book reviews, I hope this post helps you to understand my process a bit. Thank you to all of my readers and followers. Your feedback and comments are always welcome and they certainly make my work feel meaningful.


Have a good week everyone!


“Spider-Man: Homecoming” Ties Marvel Universe Together

Tom Holland is energetic and enjoyable in this superhero coming-of-age tale

Film Score: 9/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the culmination of nearly a decade of interlocking storylines and successful films from Marvel (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review here). Each has led to a believable world in which superheroes exist. But so far none of the Marvel films really focused on what this world might be like for an average citizen.

What new jobs would be created, and which would become obsolete? How would education be affected by the presence, the science, and the battles of superheroes? Instead of movie stars and boy band crushes, which superheroes would high schoolers choose to F, marry, or kill? And would the average citizen feel more, or less, safe? Spider-Man finally answers these questions by giving us a friendly, neighborhood superhero who’s “looking out for the little guy.”

Tom Holland stars as the new Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

After the massive events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to New York, now under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and mentorship of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). He’s told to sit tight and focus on his sophomore year of high school when all he wants to do is find his next mission and prove himself worthy to join the Avengers full time. Parker believes taking down the Vulture (Michael Keaton) will earn him Stark’s respect, but his mistakes at school, with friends, and even his superhero life begin to add up and he soon begins to wonder if he’s even meant to be the Spider-Man.

It’s as much a traditional high school coming-of-age tale as it is a superhero flick, which is what makes it relatable. The story is evenly balanced between the actions of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but through it all Tom Holland plays an exceptional character. His excitement at even the smallest new detail of his life is so genuine that I couldn’t stop smiling. I was geeking out watching him geek out. And just like a real teenager, he wants to be cool, has his mind on girls half the time, and is incredibly stubborn about who he wants to be while still harboring a deep anxiety that he’ll never achieve it.

His energy in the role is best matched by Jacob Batalon, who plays best friend Ned. When he discovers his best friend is Spider-Man, he has to know everything. He wants answers to the most ridiculous questions, he wants to try on the suit, and most importantly, he wants to know if he can be “the guy in the chair.” He’s the logistical smarts behind Parker’s technical skills, and his excitement at having Spider-Man for a best friend is only outweighed by his desire to fit in at school. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and look forward to seeing more of him. Especially since he delivers probably the best excuse I’ve ever heard for being somewhere he’s not supposed to be.

Michael Keaton is The Vulture in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming

As for the villain, Micheal Keaton is a worthwhile adversary in the role of Adrian/Vulture. Adrian didn’t begin as a bad guy, but he was never afraid to do some questionable things if pushed. Keaton recognizes this and does an excellent job of never losing that character core even as he becomes the Vulture. Keaton isn’t my favorite villainous actor of all time, but I can appreciate his handling of the character’s complexity.

I’d love to speak on the overall visual aspect and CGI of the film, but as I was forced to see Spider-Man from the front row with my neck craned back, I didn’t have the best perspective (see what I did there?). Keep in mind: show up to early screenings way before you think you need to.

And even with the poor viewing experience, I know that I’d still recommend this film. The fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did, even when seeing it in less than ideal conditions, proves that a movie doesn’t need to be about spectacle. A good story with excellent actors and believable worldbuilding is all that you need. Marvel has certainly perfected that.

P.S. Stay through all the credits. No spoilers, but you’ll probably enjoy it.


“Dead Men Tell No Tales” is Worst “Pirates of the Caribbean” Film Yet

New faces and old favorites can’t buoy a lackluster script that makes even Jack Sparrow dull

Film Score: 5/10

I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an analog television not meant for widescreen DVD playback. The aspect ratio was so terrible that I had to watch the action between two six-inch panels of black, but I didn’t want to miss a thing so I kept scooting closer. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the first of the series that I’ve seen on the big screen, yet it’s the only one that made me feel like it’d be okay if I looked away.


This time around everyone’s searching for the Trident of Poseidon, a magical artifact that holds the power of the sea, but their reasons never engaged me like any of the preceding films. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwiates) wants it to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman, newcomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) wants to connect with a father she never knew by finding the Trident detailed in the journal he left her, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) needs it to avoid the revenge of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghost crew. The familial bonds drawing Henry and Karina to the Trident are sufficient for introducing it as a potential treasure, but Jack’s need of the Trident—which is supposed to be urgent as it’s the only way to save his life—comes across, to quote Dead Man’s Chest, as less of a “resolute and unyielding need” and more a “trifling need […] a passing fancy.”

Jack Sparrow never once says, “I need the Trident of Poseidon.” In Dead Man’s Chest, he was very clearly terrified of the debt he owed Davy Jones and his pet beastie. He did everything in his power to prevent collection of that debt. In Dead Men Tell No Tales he meanders around on screen drinking rum for the first hour, barely aware of the danger Captain Salazar poses. Not until he and Captain Salazar finally meet does the plot pick up again as Jack realizes the threat of vengeful Spanish ghosts (and ghost sharks) is real. Though the threat apparently still isn’t real enough for Jack to start suggesting the group goes after the Trident with all haste.


Perhaps that’s a result of Captain Salazar as a villain. His thirst for revenge helps to drive the plot and certainly makes him dangerous, but it seriously stunts him as a memorable Pirates villain. Beyond the somewhat ho-hum ghostly CGI mapped around his face, all he has is his rage and a single-minded determination to find Sparrow by whatever means necessary. Bardem delivers a few excellent scenes, but it’s mainly him making due with a one-dimensional character.

Almost all the actors have to “make do” this time around as they portray characters from across the franchise. There are some classic Pirates moments that prove no one is just going through the motions—a failed bank robbery, an escape from the gallows, and the initial meeting between Sparrow and Salazar all provide the physical comedy, action, and clever banter we’ve come to love and expect—but the rest of the film relies on a script at times contrived (e.g. Paul McCartney’s cameo and an absolutely pointless witch) and at others completely ignorant of Pirates canon (i.e. the origin of Jack’s compass). The actors are left with the task of making us believe it all. Something not even Johnny Depp can do.


It doesn’t matter how big the spectacle or how many off-the-wall antics the filmmakers convince Depp to act out, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise won’t survive without an engaging story. The original film wasn’t a hit because of its CGI-heavy action sequences. It wasn’t a hit because of drawn out misinterpretations of what a horologist does for a living. And it certainly wasn’t because the audience enjoyed watching Jack Sparrow get drunk and stay drunk on screen. The original film was a story about freedom, adventure, and a man who valued those things above all else. Depp’s Academy Award-nominated performance was inspired by that story. For the sake of that performance and the legacy of the franchise, perhaps it’s good Dead Men Tell No Tales is being touted as the final adventure.


“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” Delivers Spectacle at Expense of Substance

Enjoyable performances from Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law are lost amidst a plot designed to showcase action

Film score: 6/10

I’m sure the executives at Warner Bros. were confident their Guy Ritchie-directed King Arthur adaptation would be a huge hit. Not to mention the five planned sequels. With some tweaks to the typical Arthurian legend, the right actors, and that unique Ritchie treatment of the film, it should have been the beginning of a profitable franchise devoid of superheroes with years of runway ahead.

Charlie Hunnam is King Arthur in KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

It could have been.

It isn’t a bad film—certainly not as bad as the box office or many other critics might suggest—but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword focuses too much on pyrotechnics and not enough on substance. Even though the film has many bright spots, the filmmakers drown everything with more action, more plot, more noise. However fun it all might be, the movie keeps shouting until it becomes too difficult to pick apart the good from the bad.

Thankfully the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the newest iteration of Arthur was a check in the pros column. In this version of the story his character was orphaned at a young age and grew up without knowing he was son to King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who had been murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law).  Despite being raised in a brothel in the city of Londinium (a pleasant nod to Roman occupation and historical accuracy), Arthur knew he could aspire to more. Hunnam is regal from the moment he steps on screen, in a gentleman rogue sort of way. He’s charismatic through confidence, both as an actor and a character. I’ve never witnessed Hunnam on screen before this, but he treats the role the same way Arthur treats the other characters: knowing that not everyone knows or likes him and that’s okay, because at the end of the day they’ll still probably end up the best of friends. As Arthur says, “Why have enemies when you can have friends?”

Vortigern (Jude Law) contemplates the weight of his stolen crown.

Jude Law as Vortigern is the only true enemy Arthur has, and he plays the role of villain admirably. Law cleverly avoids melodramatic posturing in favor of quiet menace and suggested power. He is certain he will be able to continue growing his power, but just to be safe he rounds up all men of a proper age to try their luck at pulling sword from stone. Enter Arthur, the born king, and the beginning of a struggle for the throne. Unfortunately, as Arthur learns to wield the sword (which is straight O.P.) the audience never gets to see Vortigern’s “growing” power. The only instance of Vortigern actually wielding magic is when he holds flickering flames in his hand. He uses magic other times in the film, but at the risk of spoilers, suffice to say the audience never actually sees him using it.

It’s a disappointing trend throughout the film. Every instance of magic is either minimal or extraordinary. There’s no in between. The opening sequence features a retinue of mages riding the backs of elephants 100 feet tall and wielding what basically amounts to a disintegration ray against the battlements of Camelot. The climatic displays of magic quickly lose their novelty and result in sequences oddly reminiscent of video game cut scenes, ultimately adding to more of that noise. Their saving grace is that they really only happen at the beginning and end of the film, leaving the entire middle with room for more enticing fare.

Legend of the Sword is at its best when the characters are the focus. Whether it’s Arthur’s back alley mates or the ragtag team of rebels led by Uther’s former advisors, they provide an everyman face to the epic battle raging around them. They also provide plenty of proverbial storytelling meat for Guy Ritchie to chop up in his traditional quick-cut style. There are truly elegant moments of Ritchie’s style, including a montage of Arthur’s early life, a story Arthur relates to a Londinium guard, and a hypothetical situation between Arthur and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) which is played out for the audience’s pleasure.


Besides Hounsou (The Legend of Tarzan, Guardians of the Galaxy), the acting roster holds other notable names, including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as a rather self-serving Goosefat Bill and Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, upcoming The Mummy) as Maggie. David Beckham has a few lines in his acting debut, and Katie McGrath makes an appearance (and unintentional Arthurian adaptation continuity, as she’d previously starred in the BBC series Merlin). If only Ritchie and his team had spent more time on them instead of relegating their names to obscurity in favor of an incredibly drawn out process to make Arthur come to terms with his past—assisted by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the Mage—so that he can use Excalibur and ramp up the epic action and noise again.

What Ritchie and his team fail to recognize is that just like Arthur is not defined by the circumstances of his childhood, neither does Excalibur define him as a king. The legend of the sword paves the way for the true king, but Arthur—and the men and women who fight by his side—are the true heroes. Ignore them and their story and it doesn’t matter how seamless the editing, pounding the music, or dazzling the displays. The people won’t follow.


“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is Wholesome Fun Despite Flaws

Rapid fire jokes and an energetic cast make up for periods of meandering plot and flat dialogue

Film Score: 7.5/10

The first Guardians of the Galaxy ended with Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), asking his cohorts, “What should we do next? Something good? Something bad? A bit of both?” They settle on the latter, and that’s exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 delivers: a bit of both good and bad. James Gunn returns to write and direct the second installment of the franchise and though he doesn’t hit every mark, he and his team hit enough of them to make the film a success.

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When we rejoin Quill and Co., they’ve channeled their galaxy-saving experience into becoming guns for hire. Their skills on put to the test against a tentacled, sharp-toothed monster while the opening credits roll and “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. They receive the fugitive Nebula (Karen Gillan) as payment from their employer, a race of conceited, golden humanoids called the Sovereign. The Guardians leave with the crazy daughter of Thanos in tow, but not before Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals from the golden gits. They only escape the Sovereign’s wrath with help from a mysterious man who reveals himself to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s long-lost father. Of course, no one truly trusts this man, but as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) so aptly puts it, “If he turns out to be evil we’ll just kill him.” So Quill, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) go with Ego and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to learn more about Quill’s past. Rocket, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), stay behind, only to get captured by Quill’s old Ravager crew and wrapped up in a mutiny against Yondu that’s been brewing ever since he agreed to first transport cargo for Ego.


The story all boils down to family and how our relationships shape who we are, so much more than genetics ever could. The plot wants Quill and Ego to be the central relationship, but it’s actually the weakest of GOTG Vol. 2. At one point the two men play catch, and though I realize there’s meant to be a level of cheesiness, the scene steps into the realm of plain awkward. Pratt tries to infuse the father-son moments with his usual charisma, but because the camera is forced to bounce between the split groups of characters, he never has time to really inhabit the scene. The same could be said of Russell, whose lackluster Ego seems to be more a fault of the writing than of the actor. He’s saddled with all the exposition, his lines accompanied by porcelain shapeshifting statues whose sole purpose is to give the audience something to look at while he talks.

Yes, the plot is driven by the bond between Quill and Ego, but it’s the secondary characters who shine in this sequel, and the energy they put into their roles helps elevate the other performances when they falter. GDP3200_CMP_v009.1246.JPGBautista and Klementieff, especially, embrace their characters’ social miscues in order to deliver standout performances and some of the best interactions of the entire film. Michael Rooker gets plenty of material to expand his turn as Yondu Undonta, the Ravager that raised Quill, and he doesn’t waste it, running the gamut of emotion from smug to remorseful with ease. He also finds a kindred soul in Rocket, revealing more about the both of them and the poor decisions they’ve made. Nebula, who was my least favorite character in the original GOTG, is finally given space to properly channel her emotional intensity and psychotic rage and it works to much better effect. But if any character deserves a commendation, it’s Baby Groot. I don’t care if it was a marketing ploy or not, but he stole the show. Every. Single. Time. I’m sure some adults will think his presence overdone, but he’s “too adorable to kill.” I found Groot to be just pure, innocent fun.groot

Which is ultimately what makes GOTG Vol 2. a success. Nothing is taken too seriously and it’s all done in good fun. The result is a creative space ideal for instances of brilliance. Nothing quite on the level of Quill’s dance-off from the first film, but close. Rocket’s contraptions are a joy to watch in action, as is a moment of hand-to-hand combat where he proves he’s more than his toys. Everything about Yondu and Rocket’s escape from the mutinous Ravagers is fantastic, as is the song choice of “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & the Americans. But above all, what continues to stick with me is the moment Quill is handed a Zune.

I remember the first mp3 player I ever bought was a Zune. The product turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt by Microsoft to compete against the Apple iPod, but I loved it all the same. So seeing Quill’s eyes light up at the publically ridiculed product, I about lost my mind. It was perfect. Sure, it may have been a tongue-in-cheek decision by writer/director James Gunn; he’s always been a bit unorthodox with his decisions for the GOTG. But it represents everything I love about the franchise: wholesome, unadulterated fun, despite its flaws.


“Tale as Old as Time” Can Still Surprise: Beauty and the Beast Review

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens lead a stellar cast in a film of innovative elements and refreshed characters

Film Score: 8/10

The threat of any remake is the comparisons viewers will inevitably draw between the old and the new. In many regards, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is the same movie as its 1991 animated namesake. The plot is the same, which would suggest an unnecessary retread of already discovered paths, but thanks to a stellar cast, a freshly dusted script, and magnificent music—minus one disappointment—, the story remains as fresh and enchanting as ever.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who lives with her somewhat absent-minded father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), in a “poor, provincial town.” Her days are spent “with her nose stuck in a book” and dodging the advances of the town’s preening beefcake, Gaston (Luke Evans). But things rapidly change for Belle when her father is taken prisoner for stealing a rose from the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster. She trades places with her father and soon finds out that the castle she must now call home is enchanted. The inhabitants have been transformed into household objects, and only if the Beast can learn to love and earn another’s love in return will the spell, and his curse, be broken.

Emma Watson proves once again that she has talent beyond her many turns as Hermione. Not only is her singing voice surprisingly strong and a thrill to listen to, but she uses every oportunity to enhance the intelligence and strength of Belle. The script helps by adding new scenes (she invents a laundry machine out of a barrel and donkey) and fresh lines (“You take me as your prisoner and now you want to have dinner with me? Are you insane?”), but Watson uses small moments that are found in the original animation, too. When she says to the Beast, “Come into the light,” instead of waiting for the Beast to comply as the animated Belle does, Watson moves the light to him. It marks her as more decisive than her predecessor and is only a small part of what makes Belle a fitting role model for a new generation.

Dan Stevens and Luke Evans are the other standouts in this film. While Stevens of Downton Abbey only gets to show off his good looks in bookend scenes of the film, he brings a very real humanity to his CGI beast form that keeps the viewer grounded in the character, even when the computer animation at times doesn’t render very believably. Evans, on the other hand, gets to show off his chiseled features throughout the entire film and he handles the strutting arrogance of the character so well that one might wonder if he doesn’t secretly preen in mirrors off set. But just like Belle, both these characters have grown up from their animated counterparts. Their stories parallel each other more closely as the outwardly hideous beast is given the backstory of a once innocent and sweet child before his mother’s death, while the inwardly foul-tempered and conniving Gaston puts on a façade for the townspeople that only LeFou and Maurice (whom Gaston openly tries to kill in this film) ever see beyond.

But no character has progressed farther from the original animated film than LeFou. He is Disney’s first openly gay character (and the unnamed man from the village is the second), but LeFou’s growth goes beyond sexual orientation. Josh Gad plays LeFou with comedic poise, but also with a hint of desperation that truly showcases the character’s desire to be accepted. His only friend is Gaston, who is accepted by everyone, so he imitates the man and sticks close by. But when Gaston’s actions begin to become questionable, LeFou finds that he’d rather be true to himself than follow blindly. So while Josh Gad doesn’t get an MVP award, he certainly gets an honorable mention; LeFou, the Most Improved Player.

Then, of course, there are the enchanted castle inhabitants who have been transformed into a collection of household objects so magnificently in CGI that, instead of simply sitting spellbound, I found myself watching for the moment when they didn’t look as real. This was especially true for Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (the wonderfully proper Ian McKellen). Emma Thompson offers a pleasant turn as Mrs. Potts, and Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Audra Macdonald lend their voices to the characters of Cadenza, Plumette, and Garderobe, respectively. All are more than capable at bringing their characters to life, except Macdonald, whose incessantly operatic performance should have been restricted to musical numbers alone.

And yes, all the songs are still there. Alan Menken helms the score once again and he’s brought along old Disney team member, and legendary lyricist, Tim Rice to fill in for the late Howard Ashman. They don’t replace any of the old favorites, but they do make some changes. “Gaston” has a few refrains changed (no hairy chests in this one) and a dance and mock sword fight added that, together with thumping drums and trumpeting brass from Menken, is a thrill to watch performed. “Be Our Guest” has become a dazzling tribute to musical performance, offering everything from an interpretive dance by Lumiere (a very amusing bit of animation) to aquatic ballet and showgirls with fanning feathers. It is also the only scene to truly stand out in the 3D version of the film. The song “Human Again,” which was present in the Broadway adaptation and re-release of the animated film, has been replaced by the more somber “Days in the Sun” to convey hope, instead of assurance, that the enchantment will someday be lifted.

The title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” gets a dressing that unfortunately looked better on the rack. Angela Lansbury sang the original with quiet grace that was matched by Menken’s score. This time around the creative minds decided on a more declarative performance for the iconic scene, using liberal amounts of sweeping strings, swells of brass, and asking Emma Thompson to belt out more than just a few words of the song. For all its fanfare, it stands as testimony to the adage that less truly is more. Thankfully, there’s still a healthy dose of Disney magic to lift you up after being let down, because not even five minutes later Dan Stevens gets the chance to showcase his singing talents in the surprise “Evermore,” a brand-new, resonant song of love and loss. Hearing it in theaters for the first time had me as giddy as the night I saw “Defying Gravity” of Wicked performed live. It was that good.

At the end of the day, all of these pieces do still amount to a remake of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. There’s no doubt it’s very similar to the original. What worked in the old still works in the new, but Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast finds new ground with innovative sights and sounds and characters reshaped for the modern age. It probably won’t be winning any big awards, but it will definitely win a lot of hearts.