Tag Archives: review

A Walk in the Woods: a (terribly written) review

On a whim, Dixie and I decided to go and see A Walk in the Woods in the theatre yesterday. It’s based on Bill Bryson’s book about his hike through (much of) the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. I am huge fan of the book, which was what got me hooked on Bryson, who is one of my favourite authors (new book coming out in October, YAAAAY!). I knew from the trailer that significant elements of the book were changed for the purposes of the movie, so my hopes weren’t high.

Below are some brief thoughts on the film. But before I do that, I feel that I should mention that Dixie, who has not read the book, as I have (several times), enjoyed the film.

– The book is a travelogue, a sort of section by section account of Bryson’s journey through a large portion of the Appalachian Trail. The film is more of a memoir/”spiritual journey” story, which isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the book, but then I’m not sure any adaption of the book could have been true to its spirit. But in order to make it what it is, the characters were made more advanced in age than Bryson was when he hikes the trail. Bryson was, I think, in his early forties when he did the hike, the character in the film of (at least) retirement age; Bryson was approaching the peak of his fame and powers as an author when he wrote A Walk in the Woods; in the film his character is at the end of his career.

– The biggest disappointment for me was that the film felt empty. That is, nearly every page in A Walk in the Woods has fascinating anecdotes and tidbits of information, sarcastic quips, and hilarious incidents (and often a combination of all of those things at once). The film was light in all those areas. The difficulty for any adaptation of an author whose primary appeal is his way with words is that what works in print often doesn’t work in film. Humour written for the page is not the same as humour written for the screen. (It’s the same with P.G. Wodehouse. As good as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were as Jeeves and Wooster, the TV adaptations couldn’t touch Wodehouse’s written page. And in my mind Bryson, particularly in his earlier work, is a sort of modern-day nonfiction Wodehouse.)

– The film was too light (which is probably related to its emptiness). I wasn’t drawn in. It showed potential at the very beginning, and even greater potential with the arrival of Kristen Schaal’s naively overconfident character. True to the book, they ditch her after a day or so, but if memory serves me right, in the book she shows up again. She doesn’t reappear in the film and she was gone far too quickly. Even if she didn’t reappear in the book, they would have done well by having her reappear in the film (since they were mucking about with the story anyway).

– The character of Stephen Katz was true to the book.

I realize that this has turned into a “the-film-wasn’t-like-the-book-so-it-sucked” sort of review, and for that I apologize. A film should be judged on its own merits, not on how well it represents the book on which it’s based (though if that really is true, I wish they’d stop putting “based upon…” in film advertising). Unfortunately, I can’t separate the two, so perhaps you should just go with Dixie’s judgement on this one. I do think the film was “light”: a story that doesn’t really go anywhere or land.

Lucy

Dixie and I watched Luc Besson’s new film Lucy a couple of days ago.

The philosophical question behind it is interesting: what would humans be like if we used more of our brains? This question is based on the suggestion (which my oldest daughter tells me is false) that humans only use about 10% of their brain capacity.

Lucy addresses this question with the story of Lucy, who unwittingly and against her will finds herself involved with a Chinese drug ring, who surgically implants a bag of a powerful new drug in her stomach. The bag is unintentionally punctured and the high concentration of the drug entering her blood stream begins to “awaken” her brain to its full capacity.

Besson’s answer to this question is, unfortunately, the standard fare. In film, more of our brains for some reason always means what we (in our current state of minimal brain usage) would consider superpowers—telekinesis, telepathy, etc. I’ve never understood why such an assumption is made. I suppose it makes for a more “exciting” film, but what possible connection could there be between neural synapses and moving inanimate objects from a distance?

Even more curious, in Besson’s vision a human with increased brain usage becomes increasingly robotic. This gift—if it can be called that—is ultimately about gaining knowledge, even to the point of omniscience and a godlike status. At the same time, this “super”-human is almost completely without compassion. This new god-creature is only interested in passing on its vast newly-gained knowledge, even as people are dying violently around it.

Beyond the superpower clichés, the film lacks direction. It’s never clear exactly what Lucy is doing or why: is she saving the world? is she seeking vengeance for this unwanted gift of brains? or is it really unwanted? Who knows. There are interesting hints at a new stage of evolution/new creation, which have potential, but they are never explained or explored.

I found it to be quite a bleak vision. Perhaps that was the point. Or perhaps Besson simply needed an interesting plot-line to fuel some CGI fun. I’m not sure. I’d like to see a film in which increased brain power results in more compassion and a human simply becoming more human.

No Line on the Horizon

I’m ridiculously loyal to U2.  I keep buying their CDs upon release without listening to them first.   I have continued to do this even though I effectively stopped listening to new U2 material a decade ago (Pop was the last album I paid much attention to).  Even now, when they’ve already looking forward to the follow-up album coming out in the fall. Why do I do this?  I don’t know.  Continuity?  Loyalty?  Obsessive compulsiveness?

I don’t know what it was about All That You Can’t Leave Behind (ATYCLB), which was effectively a come-back album for the band in terms of popularity, after unorthodox (but still good) Zooropa and Pop (and–sort of–Passengers) and a somewhat lukewarm (relatively speaking, of course–because U2 and their work can really only be compared to themselves) response to the PopMart tour.  ATYCLB has some unquestionably good songs on it, but something about it seemed…I don’t know…forced.  And I think it might have been a bit overproduced to the point of being soft-around the edges–like something by Boston (I’m guessing there) or later Big Sugar or Wide Mouth Mason.  Yes: a little too polished.

In terms of production, the album which followed–How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDMAAB)was a much grittier improvement.  Actually, I thought it was a much better album overall than ATYCLB, again with many good songs.  But still…something didn’t click.

In spite of this, I kept looking forward to the new album.  U2 set the bar incredibly high with both The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and I suppose some part of me is anxious for them to do it again, even though that will be nearly impossible to do for them.  Shortly before the release of No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH), I read the Rolling Stone review, which gave the album five stars out of five and said it was their best album since Achtung Baby. My hopes skyrocketed again.

The problem with high hopes is that they’re rarely met.  After my first listen through of NLOTH I was “disappointingly underwhelmed”, to quote my own Facebook status.  Obscure, unsingable melodies; that annoying “Elevation”-“Vertigo”-“Get On Your Boots” guitar sound; seemingly pointless jangly guitar riffs.

Some of these review blurbs from MetaCritic summed it up for me:

“…a grab bag of underdeveloped ideas that never seemed to command the band’s full attention” — The Onion A.V. Club

“…reveal[s] not that U2 went into the studio with a dense, complicated blueprint, but rather, they had no plan at all” — All Music Guide

I was disappointed, unimpressed.

Where were the anthems of yesteryear?  Where were the must-be-sung melodies of old?  When will we hear something comparable to “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “One”, “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” or even “If God Will Send His Angels”?

And yet…

And yet I found the songs from NLOTH were stuck in my head and I didn’t mind them so much.  I’ve been spinning the album in my car for the last couple of days–much more attention than I gave the last two albums–and I’m beginning to wonder if this will be another one of those albums which, like Zooropa, will become better the more it is listened to.  It’s growing on me.  Already “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is my favourite U2 song in more than 10 years–probably since 1993’s “Lemon”.

I’m not going to give it a rating. But I’ve given it enough time to realize that there is great potential here.  I was originally planning  on posting this review the day after the album was released, I’m glad I waited.  It may just be their best album since Achtung Baby, I don’t know.  It doesn’t complete the Joshua Tree-Achtung Baby trilogy, but I am getting the sense that it does eclipse their last two albums.  And, since they are not pretending to be something they’re not, perhaps it eclipses Zooropa as well (but, for purely subjective reasons, I’m not willing to commit to that suggestion).

Some things I realized while listening to this album:

  • Bono and The Edge get all the media attention, but the two quiet guys who use their own names–Larry and Adam (drums and bass, respectively)–are the musical heart and soul and foundation of this band.
  • In the post-Achtung Baby U2 world, my favourite songs tend to be those that are unusual and less U2-like.  On this album: “I’ll Got Crazy…” and “Stand Up Comedy”.  In the past: “Lemon” (Zooropa), “Miami” and “Please” (Pop)
  • Donald Miller (yes, the writer of Blue Like Jazz) has an interesting review of the album, in which he highlights a fact that we generally overlook, especially when we critique what U2 does: that they are an organization with hundreds of employees, many of whom will have families.  It’s not just the four of them that need to be considered, but a whole network of people are affected by how popular their music is and how well their tours do.  There is a U2 machine to keep oiled and running.

I’m still not fully convinced about NLOTH, but, as I say, it’s growing on me.

And on “I’ll Go Crazy…” alone (and their amazing tour set–it’s pretty amazing, if that thing falls apart during a concert, the band is dead) I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t make an effort to see them in concert in Vancouver or Chicago in the fall.