MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Movie Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) — May 25, 2015

Movie Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Movie Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

grand budapest

Movie Synopsis:

This amusing film tells the story of Gustave, the famous concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, and how he conducted his duties with pride and zeal to ensure the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel maintained its image as one of the most remarkable hotels in all of Europe.  Along the way, he mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa, who grows up to be his ally and friend, as well as junior employee.  Together, they have a number of adventures and close calls during the time of post WWI and pre WWII, always in the spirit of maintaining the fabulousness of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Movie Review:

This was one of those rare comedy films that felt very unique and fresh, and was not just another one of the same films trying to make you laugh for the same reasons.  The writing in this film was fantastic, with story lines that were sometimes absurd but so enjoyable that we were happy to laugh our way along with it.  Great scenes of humour were interspersed with action and suspense, but always with more than a touch of humour, keeping the film light.  The screenwriters did a great job taking the original novel and fitting it to the screen.

Sometimes the humour got a little bit too much slapstick and over the top for the scenes, which in a couple of scenes caused some minor annoyance as we were almost taken out of the scenes and movie a little bit, but for the most part, this was a minor issue.

Moving on, the visual effects and general cinematography of the film were beautiful.  The film did a wonderful job of illustrating and making us feel like we were in the vibrant times of a classy post WWI hotel.  Scenes outside the hotel were equally thrilling and enjoyable.

The acting in the film was top notch, with an array of fantastic actors turning out great performances, including Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Adrian Brody, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tony Revolori, and Saoirse Ronan.

Overall, this film was definitely an enjoyable, comedic ride that is well worth seeing.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – Red Army (2014) —

Movie Review – Red Army (2014)

Movie Review – Red Army (2014)

red army

Movie Synopsis:

This American / Russian documentary traces the successes and failures, and events and activities, of the Soviet Red Army hockey team.  It also looks at the hockey team through the political and social lens of the Soviet Union during and after the Cold War era, and describes the impact the Red Army had on its Russian players, on Russian society, and on the hockey world internationally.  Interviews focus on Captain Slava Fetisov, along with many other interviews with other players from this highly successful team from the old Soviet Union.

Movie Review:

This documentary was a fascinating and enjoyable look into the world of sport in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  The connections are made early on between the importance of playing this sport, but that you are doing this to honour, respect, and represent your country.  The pressure put on the players is well examined here, and the connections are made between hockey and politics throughout the story.  The changing political climate means upheavals in the Soviet hockey program, and how the Soviet leadership deals with its star players.  This examination is intriguing, and well shown to the viewers.

The documentary excels when looking at how the team ebbs and flows, and the impacts it has on the players and their families.  Although there is not a lot of interviews with family members, instead focusing on hockey players, coaches, and journalists, we still get a strong sense of impacts on people as well as the game and its connections with Soviet politics and culture in the context of the Cold War and the end of the Cold War.

Looking more at the people and emotional side of things, it was very interesting when filmmaker Gabe Polsky asked questions about how the players felt, or the connections and relations between each other and their families.  Polsky gets into this with a few of the retired players being interviewed, and interestingly he doesn’t always get a lot of information back.  This is unfortunate but may not be surprising, given he was speaking to very masculine figures in the Russian sporting world.  What we do learn though on the emotional side and the family side is important though.  An unfortunately unanswered question is whether these players reflect back on the issues surrounding how they were treated by the Soviet government, and what their views, opinions, and feelings are today about that?

Overall, this is a wonderful, entertaining, illuminating look into Russian hockey and its impacts on geopolitics during the Cold War era.  Definitely a great documentary, not just for sports fans, but for fans of Russian history, Cold War history, and politics.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) — May 23, 2015

Movie Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

Movie Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

girl walks home

Movie Synopsis:

This black and white American film, in Persian with English sub-titles, is billed as the first Iranian Vampire Western.  It centres around a mysterious woman in a black cape, who wanders the Iranian town of Bad City, terrorizing her victims in various ways, and at the same time focusing attention on a young man and the emotions that he brings out in her.

Movie Review:

This film was a very interesting, unique, cinematic experience.  The visuals in the black and white film were many times mesmerizing, which shots of the oil and gas fields outside the Iranian town, sides of drab buildings and homes brought to life by vibrant and interesting characters who were often times walking through Bad City in the middle of the night.  Some of the most eerie and frightening scenes did not involve specific “vampire action”, such as when the the unnamed woman frightens and terrorizes a young boy playing with his skateboard in the street.  There were also elements of humour in the film too, with the way the woman interacted with various characters, whether it was one of the victims or one of the spared people in Bad City.

The other main character in the film, the young man Arash, was a complex character who was not quite as interesting as the woman.  He certainly inspired some sex appeal, but the chemistry between him and the woman sometimes felt forced and fake.

Although there were elements that made this enjoyable, the idea of mashing up a vampire movie and a western, in this fictional Iranian town, didn’t always work.  Sometimes the plot seemed to move slowly from one thematic moment to the next, and there were numerous sub-plots that didn’t always fit nicely into the overarching story that was being told.

In summary, this was an interesting story from an artistic and visual concept perspective, but did not really live up to the bill as being an exciting vampire / western.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014) — May 19, 2015

Movie Review – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014)

Movie Review – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014)

kumiko

Movie Synopsis:

This American film, in both English and Japanese, tells the tale of Kumiko, a frustrated and depressed young adult from Tokyo, who is disgruntled with her job and her life at home.  But when she stumbles upon a video of the film “Fargo” and mistakes it for a real documentary, she decides to set out for the USA, and try to uncover the buried treasure that was featured in the wintry landscape of the movie.

Movie Review:

This film was indeed an interesting and unique storyline, taking material out of a cult classic like Fargo and using it for a new tale with international intrigue, mystery, and a sense of adventure.

Successes of this film included that originality of the concept, and the interesting direction that the story followed. The music by indie band Octopus Project also added to the feel of intense and raw emotion we saw play out in the film.  Finally, the shots of the cold, barren Minnesota and North Dakota winter landscape, contrasted with the busy urban cityscapes of Tokyo provided great cinematography to the viewer.

However, weaknesses of the film were also present.  Primary among these weaknesses were the confusing and scrambled plot, and the need for audiences to continually suspend logical thought and just buy into things that were highly unlikely.  For example, the ability for Kumiko to successfully make it to the USA on stolen credit cards, and still not get caught by authorities, while being so naive about what she was doing.  Another example was her ability to escape paying for a room in rural Minnesota, and not be charged or taken in by the police afterwards.  Many times the plot just required us to suspend all logic, to the point of frustration.

Overall, although this film had some successes and was interesting from several perspectives, the film can be looked at in terms of having a lot of potential, but not quite hitting the mark.

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars.

Book Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin — May 18, 2015

Book Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

Book Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

storiedlife

Facts:

  •    Book: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
  •    Author: Gabrielle Zevin
  •    Genre: Fiction
  •    Year of Release: 2014
  •    Read 260-page paperback edition in May 2015.

Book Description:

Bookseller and store owner A.J. Fikry is in a very difficult state of affairs at the moment. Nothing seems to be going well for him in his life, and he is feeling a variety of stressors, anger, and sadness, from many fronts.  When his prized and valuable possession is stolen from the store however, he feels he is near his breaking point.  But the stolen Edger Allen Poe collectors item sets off an interesting chain of events, that is sure to change his life, forever.

Book Review:

This was truly a fantastic novel!  Gabrielle Zevin has done a remarkable job bringing all kinds of themes, characters, and ideas together into a fun, interesting, and emotional journey.  Zevin does a great job of painting characters that are never caricatures, and are never good or bad, but rather complex, nuanced, shades of grey.  Rather than create cookie cutters for us to read about, she presents unique people that we can be angry with in one way, but still be cheering for, because they remind us about the complexities of human beings.  Main characters and secondary characters alike create enjoyment, amusement, and create an emotional investment by the reader, which is a testament to the strong writing of Zevin.

The plot itself is a meandering, twisting one, which allows the reader to see characters from a variety of angles, over a long period of time.  The novel’s chapters occur over a couple of decades, and although the timelines are not always clear, and although the reader is sometimes begging for more detail and information, what we are presented with is a fascinating plot.

The setting of Alice Island is well described by Zevin, and the setting inside the bookstore is a creation that allows us some mystery.  This idea of the independent bookstore, the intrigue of a bookstore owner, and the excitement of reading and living, are woven together beautifully.

There are ups and downs, and there is happiness and heartache.  Although it sometimes feels too short in places and too short in detail, that is a small price to pay for a great story, with great characters, Overall, this is a wonderful novel that celebrates the joy of reading, and the joy of relationships.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Book Review – The Martian – Andy Weir — May 16, 2015

Book Review – The Martian – Andy Weir

Book Review – The Martian – Andy Weir

martian

Facts:

  •    Book: The Martian
  •    Author: Andy Weir
  •    Genre: Science Fiction
  •    Year of Release: 2011
  •    Read 369-page paperback edition in May 2015.

Book Description:

Mark Watney was very proud and excited to be one of the first people to walk on Mars.  However, when an accident six days into the mission forces the rest of the crew to evacuate the planet, a misunderstanding causes them to believe Mark dead, and they leave him on the surface.  However, he is very much alive, and now is stranded on the planet, with little resources, no communication to the ship and earth, and very small hope of staying alive for long.  Mark must use his wits, ingenuity, and skills to stay alive and figure out how to get earth’s attention and somehow get home.

Book Review:

Andy Weir’s debut science fiction novel was absolutely fantastic!

First off, Weir did a fantastic job with his characterization of Mark Watney.  Watney, as the principle character in the novel, was alone on Mars and therefore not able to interact with other humans on the story.  This could have made for some challenging scenes, but Weir’s use of mission logs to have Watney narrate some of what was happening was a great decision.  In addition, the use of humour in Watney’s character was very believable and added to the enjoyment of the novel.  It really humanized the main character, trapped in this barren world but able to have some laughs while stranded.

Furthermore, Watney’s descriptions of Mars itself as a planet were fairly present and consistent throughout.  His ability to describe the red planet, the dunes and sand, the rocky terrain in places, the craters, the moons Phobos and Deimos overhead, were all nicely done.  Weir doesn’t spend too much time describing the scenery of the place, but when he takes that time of showcasing the scenery, through Watney’s observations and eyes, it is always enjoyable.

One note to make, which slightly detracted my personal enjoyment of the novel, was the heavy dose of science in the novel.  Weir’s background is in technical fields, and thus it makes sense he did heavy research into the subject matter and the science behind things.  Although some people really enjoy this, and it makes sense for this to be termed a hard sci-fi novel, it was heavy on science in parts, and sometimes caused me as the reader to get a little lost in what was going on, and what the point of a certain section was, because too much time was spent setting up.  This is a personal complain of course, and a small one, in the grand scheme of this excellent, fast-paced novel.

Overall, this was an excellent debut novel, and although it was a bit tech-heavy at times, it was one of the best science fiction novels of recent years!

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Amphibian – Carla Gunn — May 12, 2015

Book Review – Amphibian – Carla Gunn

Book Review – Amphibian – Carla Gunn

amphibian

Facts:

  •    Book: Amphibian
  •    Author: Carla Gunn
  •    Genre: Fiction
  •    Year of Release: 2009
  •    Read 216-page paperback edition in April 2015.

Book Description:

Phineas is a very special nine year old.  He has an amazingly complex mind, and a rare gift for caring about the world and creatures around him.  He has vast knowledge about environmental issues, and wants to make the world a better place.  He also has the usual troubles of a young person in the modern age, with bullies on the playground and recently separated parents who may divorce.  However, when a White’s Tree Frog enters the classroom aquarium as a pet, his inner defences for this loveable animal kick in, and he begins an extensive plan to free the frog and return him to his proper habitat. Along the way, he also learns a few lessons about living.

Book Review:

This was a fantastic novel by Canadian author Carla Gunn.  Packed with a lot of themes and ideas, including environmental issues, bullying at school, how to provide quality care and interact with unique children, single parenting issues, and more, Gunn did a great job of bringing these various topics together in a short period of time.  Gunn also does a wonderful job bringing us into the mind of a nine year old narrator, and it is truly a joy to see the world through Phineas’ eyes.  We can also relate and sympathize with people like Phineas’ mother, who encounters a lot of stress and difficulty trying to truly understand her son.

A couple of small complaints I had in the novel.  One was that the therapist who sees Phineas seems completely ludicrous and acts in ways that are caricaturist and even ridiculous at times.  For example, telling a child he can never make a difference; is this something we tell children in this day and age?  It seemed unbelievable for the time period.  Another small complaint was that in order to create the tension required, the author made the mother not understand and not listen at various times.  Although this does happen with parents and children sometimes, this disconnect seemed to be ratcheted up to such a degree that it became almost a little bit too fake.

That all being said, these characters were still enjoyable, particularly Phineas, who as the nine year old was our child hero.  As a nine year old, the reader was able to laugh out loud at some of his observations on the world, on humans, on his mother, and on his school.  It’s always fun to think about what kids are processing in their minds, and with this book we got to go inside and see!

Overall, this was a fun, lively novel, and definitely one worth reading.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars.