Authors I Love: Terry Pratchett

This is a series that’s just what it says on the tin: authors I love.

These aren’t just authors that I read; these are authors I follow, whose books I buy as soon as I get a chance. These are the authors for whom I’ll read everything they write just because they’re the ones writing it.

For this post, we’re going back to the fantasy genre and Terry Pratchett!

What does he write?
Comedic fantasy; specifically the Discworld series.

How did you first hear about him?
I can’t even remember. I’d heard about Discworld for years thanks to the Internet, but had never picked it up. Finally, somebody at a NaNo get-together told me about the whole “series within a series” aspect of it, and described the Night Watch books. I thought those sounded pretty funny.

And after I read and loved Good Omens (which is by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), I felt like I kind of had to pick up Discworld.

guards-guardsWhat was the first book of his you read?
Guards! Guards!
It’s the first book in the Night Watch arc.

How many of his books have you read?
Thirteen and counting:
Equal Rites
Wyrd Sisters
Witches Abroad
Reaper Man
Guards! Guards!
Men at Arms
Feet of Clay
The Fifth Elephant
Monstrous Regiment
Unseen Academicals
Where’s My Cow?
– yes, it’s a picture book, but it counts, believe me.

Why do you like him so much?
He’s hilarious. I described him to my friends as “Douglas Adams does fantasy,” which does a good job of describing his early work, but Pratchett becomes so much more than just that. His stuff moves from just straight parody of fantasy and its tropes to some excellent satire, and he has such an amazing way with words that I usually have to stop several times to read a passage aloud because it’s so. Damn. Funny.

He also creates wonderfully memorable characters in every story. You have the regulars like Sam Vimes, Carrot, Colon and Nobby, Lord Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, and Death, and then those who show up for just one book like Eskarina (Esk) in Equal Rites or Polly in Monstrous Regiment or Glenda in Unseen Academicals.

None of them are perfect; they have flaws and foibles but they also grow and change over the course of their stories, whether it’s just one book or eight. I love the characters with a capital L.

Also, his worldbuilding? Unexpectedly awesome. Discworld feels like a fully realized world, even amongst (or perhaps even because of) its ridiculousness.

I think any fan of high fantasy needs to read at least a few Discworld books.

men-at-armsWhat’s your favorite book of his?
Men at Arms.
It’s the second in the Night Watch arc and it is absolutely fantastic. Vimes and Carrot are my two favorite characters in the entire series, and this book showcases both of them excellently.

Not to mention there’s an amazing scene between Carrot and Lord Vetinari at the end that is just phenomenal. I had to reread it about four times because I loved it so much.

What’s your least favorite book of his?
It’s a toss-up between Monstrous Regiment and Unseen Academicals. In the case of Monstrous Regiment, the beginning of it (in particular) was a lot darker in tone than I was expecting, so while it wasn’t bad, it really threw me. However, it picked up a lot more near the end.

With Unseen Academicals, it was merely good, whereas most of the rest of the books I’d read had been great. It was really interesting to see the City Watch from the viewpoint of the street characters who’d be taken in for questioning, though.

I feel I should point out, though, that both of those books are still very, very good.

Where should a new reader start?
Since I’m partial to the Night Watch, my recommendation would be Guards! Guards!. It’s a great jumping-off place, a perfect introduction to the city of Ankh-Morpork, and is overall a lot of fun. Plus, this is the book that introduces you to Sam Vimes and Carrot Ironfoundersson, who are easily my two favorite characters in the series.

However, you could also start with Equal Rites, which is a standalone but introduces Granny Weatherwax (who is amazing and one of the main characters of the Witches stories). There’s also Mort, which is the first book in Death’s arc.

You could also start with Wyrd Sisters, which is not only the first book of the Witches series, but can best be described as “Terry Pratchett does Macbeth.” It’s pretty much as good as it sounds.

The Netflix Queue: High Road

High_Road_Movie_PosterI really wasn’t sure what to expect from something called an “improvisational comedy.” What I got was a movie much funnier and more entertaining than I expected it to be.

Fitz (James Pumphrey) is a pot-smoking drummer with a girlfriend he loves. Generally, he’s happy with his life. Then, both of his other bandmates leave the band, and Fitz is reduced to selling pot out of his garage (though he insists he isn’t a dealer).

When he suspects he’s about to get busted by the police, he tosses all his drugs and heads to Oakland until the heat dies down, though he somewhat-accidentally brings his 16-year-old friend, Jimmy (Dylan O’Brien), along with him.

It’s a comedy of errors that gets Fitz and Jimmy on the road to Oakland, with Jimmy’s dad (Rob Riggle) and Officer Fogerty (Joe Lo Truglio) in hot pursuit. Fitz doesn’t actually need to go on the run (which we know, but he sure as hell doesn’t), but at the same time, it may be the best thing that’s happened to him. It really forces him outside of his comfort zone, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll grow up a little during it.

He and Jimmy develop a funny brotherly relationship, although who’s the older brother is up for debate, depending on the scene. 🙂

Jimmy’s dad and Fogerty were hilarious (keep watching during the credits; Jimmy, his dad, and Fogerty have a great final scene). On the one hand, I could totally understand why his dad was so worried, but at the same time I kept waiting for them to accidentally kill someone.

Fogerty was brilliant at the “making it worse” thing, which alternated between being hysterical and me just wanting to beg him to think before he spoke JUST ONE TIME. (Spoiler: He never does. It remains funny.)

Also, Ed Helms was just spot-on as Monica’s creepy boss, Barry. Their interactions had me laughing and squirming at the same time. And I liked Monica’s road trip (trying to track Fitz down) almost as much as Fitz and Jimmy’s.

The comedy style definitely isn’t for everyone. I thought it was hilarious for the most part, but there were a couple of times it felt like the jokes went on just a little too long, which is perhaps a function of the improv style of the movie. (At that point, I was glad I was drinking, because where normally that would have grated on me, being not-sober helped me tolerate it better.)

High Road is relatively short (running just under 90 minutes) and unexpectedly entertaining. And last I checked, it’s still available on Netflix Instant. If it sounds like your cup of tea, then go forth and enjoy. And if you’re not sure, give it a chance.

Movie Review: The Internship

Let’s be honest here: The Internship is not a movie that would normally make it onto my summer radar. For one, my tolerance for dumb comedies is pretty low, and Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson tend to be hit-or-miss for me. Sometimes I really love the stuff they do (Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers), and other times it makes me want to stick a fork in my eye (Four Christmases, I Spy).

For two, it’s a movie about the tech industry—which is my day job—and Hollywood is notoriously terrible about how they handle pretty much any and all computer-related things. So it’s also an invitation to an hour and a half of resisting the urge to scream “COMPUTERS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY” in the middle of a crowded theater.

However, there are certain things you can do to get me to see a movie like this. One, take an actor I really, really like.

Dylan O'Brien as Stiles, Teen Wolf


Two, put him in glasses.

Dylan O'Brien in The Internship. With glasses.

Like so.

What will inevitably happen is I will come out of some kind of fog at the theater, movie ticket in hand, wondering why the hell my bank balance is $10 lighter.

Which is almost exactly what happened to Eris and me on Sunday.

Thankfully, The Internship was pretty entertaining; I laughed more than I expected (though yes, I did bury my head in my hands several times). *

However, it really wasn’t as good as Wedding Crashers, and frankly, it’s kind of strange to watch a movie and realize you’ve spent two hours basically watching other people do your job.

internship-posterNick (Owen Wilson) and Billy (Vince Vaughn) are best friends, salesmen, and very, very good at what they do. So they’re understandably surprised when the company they work for closes its doors, the owner retires to Florida, and they’re left without jobs.

Billy, always the one with the big ideas, gets them an interview for a summer internship at Google (that could possibly lead to a job), and thanks to some quick talking, they actually get in. But they’re competing with hundreds of other kids who are twice as smart as them and much more comfortable in the tech world than Nick and Billy are. Can Nick and Billy make their old-school skills relevant in this strange new world, or will they be left behind?

First off, the tech stuff—not nearly as bad as I feared (probably in a large part because Google had their name all over this). The parts that made me cringe were supposed to make you cringe (at least, I hope they were), and they, for the most part, glossed over anything more technical than a few mentions of HTML5. (This was kind of a relief.)

(I also had a lot of trouble believing that two 40ish-year-old guys would be that clueless about the Internet and online stuff, but when I mentioned that to Jessica, she gave me a horrified look and assured me it was very possible. She spends more time talking to people about this than I do. 🙂 )

For the most part, I liked Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in this, though Vaughn was a little more hit or miss for me. Sometimes his stuff was hysterical, and other times I just wanted to beg him to stop talking. Nothing in here was as clever or memorable as their stuff in Wedding Crashers, except perhaps for the very, very beginning, when they’re listening to Alanis Morissette’s Ironic to psych themselves up for a sales meeting.

And really, it surprised me how much I enjoyed the sales scenes, particularly the ones near the end. I think it’s because I’ve been involved peripherally in enough of those meetings to understand the feelings on both sides, hearing the objections and scrambling to deal with them. An odd thing to click with, but there you go.

But once you get past all the Google stuff, The Internship sticks close to the standard underdog story formula. The interns are all split into groups and must compete in various contests, and the group with the highest score will be the ones offered jobs. And of course, Nick and Billy are left with the outcasts.

Watching the movie, it was far too easy to mentally call out what was going to happen next. Heck, even if you’ve seen the trailer you can make a fairly educated guess as to how things are going to go.

It’s not impossible to overcome predictability, but if your story is hitting all the standard beats, you’ve got to find a way to twist it up just a little bit. It’s for this reason that one of the best bits, easily, is the Quidditch game, which almost had me rolling on the ground. Unfortunately, except for another couple of scenes, the rest of the movie wasn’t quite as clever about surprising the audience.

So, overall: not as bad as I expected, but still not as good as some other comedies Vaughn and Wilson have done. I saw it at a matinee and feel like I got my money’s worth, though with movies like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Man of Steel in theaters, it’s difficult to advocate seeing this one before it hits DVD.

* Of COURSE I loved Dylan O’Brien in it. What, was there a question of that? Then again, I’m pretty sure I could watch him make snarky comments for two hours straight and be perfectly happy… Actually, I know I can because I’ve chain-watched six episodes of Teen Wolf in one sitting.

A to Z Challenge – Z is for Zombieland

zombielandLet’s be honest: one of the coolest pieces of music in cinema is the locket song by Ennio Morricone from For A Few Dollars More. The importance of the locket and the beauty of that song and the final showdown in that movie? Seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on film. I love it.

So you can imagine the high-pitched squeal of excitement I made when I heard those familiar chimes as part of the score when Columbus and Tallahassee first meet.

I think that was where I fell in love with the movie, and Zombieland would have to screw up a lot for me to hate it.

Fortunately, it didn’t, and while it’s not my favorite zombie movie, it’s a fun addition to the genre.

In Zombieland, the world’s gone entirely to the zombies (as you might gather from the title). Our narrator is Columbus, an introverted college student who has survived the zombie apocalypse thus far by sticking firmly to his list of rules. At the beginning of the movie, he’s heading north to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive.

On his way, though, he hitches a ride with Tallahassee, a zombie-killing badass, and then they meet up with Wichita and Little Rock, two sisters who are heading west to an amusement park that they believe is completely free of zombies. And as Columbus spends more time with them, he begins to find a life worth living, even after the end of the world.

Surprisingly, I liked Columbus as a narrator (surprising because voiceovers are a dicey proposition with me), and I really loved his rules and the way they show up throughout the movie. I haven’t seen anything Jesse Eisenberg’s been in before, but I really liked him as the awkward, anti-social college student.

Overall, the entire cast did a great job, and I suspect the relatively tiny size of the cast contributes to the sense of isolation we get throughout the entire film. With a bare handful of exceptions, we spend most of our time with Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, getting to know them as they get to know each other.

I also suspect the small size of the cast also contributes to the brisk running time: the entire movie is right at an hour and a half, and so it never really has a chance to drag.

Plus, the final showdown with the zombies at the amusement park? Brilliant. I loved every single second of it.

Where the movie fell a little flat was in its predictability. There were a couple of parts where I looked at the screen and said, “X is going to happen.” Sure enough, it did, each and every time. It made for very few surprises, which is unfortunate because the jumpy parts are part and parcel of a zombie movie.

And frankly, anyone who’s watched a zombie movie before will facepalm at a couple of character actions–characters that otherwise do a good job with surviving in the post-apocalyptic world.

(And it annoys the hell out of me that I have NO idea where they get gas or ammunition. Yes, yes, “say to yourself ‘it’s just a show; I should really just relax.'” I know. But COME ON.)

Despite the flaws, though, I really enjoyed it. The best zombie movie I’ve ever seen remains Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland ranks a solid second place.

Have you seen Zombieland? What did you think? What’s your favorite zombie movie?

A to Z Challenge – W is for Wedding Crashers

wedding-crashersLately, it seems that most studios are pushing broad PG-13 movies in the hopes of appealing to the widest possible audience. While you can’t blame them (too much) for wanting to make money, the problem with this plan is that it usually results in them hacking an R-rated movie to pieces in order to get the coveted PG-13 rating. This typically results in a sub-par product that is not nearly as bitingly funny as it could’ve been. Sometimes it’s okay to play it safe, but usually in order to make it big, you’ve got to take a risk.

Thankfully, Wedding Crashers embraces its R rating, and strikes that perfect balance: It doesn’t go for the gratuitous and unnecessary, but stays comfortably raunchy. Although it has a couple of montages that go on for a wee bit too long (the bike ride to the beach springs to mind) and suffers from the clichés brought on by the inevitable reveal, it’s still the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. And when I say “funniest,” I mean that if you have any sort of sense of humor, you won’t be able to breathe for the first two hours.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) are best friends, divorce mediators, and professional wedding crashers, meaning they go to weddings and use the atmosphere and alcohol to bed willing bridesmaids. They crash the biggest wedding of the year – that of Treasury Secretary William Cleary’s (Christopher Walken) daughter – and John falls hard for one of Cleary’s other daughters, Claire (Rachel McAdams).

Jeremy, meanwhile, attracts daughter #3, Gloria (Isla Fisher), and is in over his head before the reception ends. Despite Jeremy’s frantic attempts to get John to leave, the two “cousins” accept an invitation to the family’s beach house so John can attempt to woo Claire away from her ultra-competitive jerk of a boyfriend.

As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.

Said “hijinks” include a quail hunt, a “touch” football game, an extremely interesting dinner involving a vocally racist grandmother, gay bondage, regular bondage, attempted nursing, and a nude painting.

This movie is proof that Vince Vaughn is, to put it mildly, a genius. His humor comes more from biting sarcasm rather than physical comedy (although there’s plenty of that, too), and it is best delivered at the same speed as attained by an Indy 500 car. His mile-a-minute bit on why he hates dating near the beginning of the movie is gut-busting because it’s so damn true, and that’s what got me hooked on the movie.

His character Jeremy is the crazier of the two bachelors, and thus the more interesting. He is bound and determined to continue the legacy of wedding crashing that they’ve inherited for as long as they can.

Jeremy is also the one who gets the raw end of the deal once they get to the beach house: while John tries to get Claire’s attention and make her fall for him, Jeremy is the one getting tackled by her boyfriend, then “nursed” by the slightly psycho sister who now proclaims to be in love with him. The only thing keeping him at that house is his friendship with John. (How good of a friend are you?)

Owen Wilson plays the straight (well, straighter) man. John is the slightly more sensitive of the two, the one who realizes that the two men can’t continue their frat guy shenanigans forever, but is still going to have a good time while it lasts.

He provides the “serious” plot for the movie, with his attempts to get with the single sane member of the Cleary clan. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his share of interesting adventures, though, especially with Claire’s horny mom (a hilarious Jane Seymour) trying to get some action.

Christopher Walken is one of the few character actors whose name on the front of a DVD box will get most people I know to rent a movie, and he plays a great powerful father. He likes John but is petrifying to Jeremy, and one would think that Daddy would be the biggest hurdle to getting with any one of the Cleary daughters.

Another (surprisingly welcome) cameo comes in the form of Will Ferrell, and even though he’s in serious danger of career overkill, he’s at his best when he’s acting like a complete nut, and he’s nutty here indeed.

However, the standout of the cast is relative newcomer Isla Fisher, the actress who plays Gloria. She’s a few cards short of a full deck, and is more than a match for the commitment-phobic Jeremy. The temper tantrum she throws to get her father’s permission for the “cousins” to come to the beach house is classic. Something about a grown woman holding her breath and stomping her feet, while in a formal dress, is comical, to put it mildly.

Gloria seems to have no boundaries, and will stop at nothing in her attempts to bed Jeremy once they get to the beach house. She’s alternately intriguing and terrifying, and it’s hard to decide if she’s sexy or just a lunatic like the rest of the family.

The one thing I hate about these types of comedies are the reveals, because every one is exactly the same. An antagonist gets a feeling that our leads are not what they say, and goes about searching for proof. Then, proof is given at a very inopportune moment, and our lead(s) must ‘fess up or let the antagonist do it for them.

This inevitably results in hurt feelings and a major rift, just in time to provide the major obstacle for the final half of the movie. Of course, that usually leads to a zany and improbable plan to get the love interest’s attention, and then shower them with a clichéd profession of true love.

Gag me with a spoon. Wedding Crashers, naturally, has this reveal and many of the clichés that go along with it, but fortunately it also has Vince Vaughn to lighten the mood and a long-overdue punching after the profession of love. So, you win some, you lose some.

Wedding Crashers is proof that if you want to make something funny, you shouldn’t play it safe. It’s just some good, clean, R-rated fun. Grandparents and young children, beware.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.

A to Z Challenge – L is for Little Miss Sunshine

little_miss_sunshine_ver5Family is a weird beast. The weirdest one I’ve ever met was my friend Jessica’s new in-laws, when I went to her wedding reception back in June. Not because they were crazy or dysfunctional. That I can handle. No, these people were perfectly normal. Everybody got along swimmingly, the kids calmed down when they were asked, and they were all just so gosh-darn nice.

Little Miss Sunshine is not about a family like that. It’s about a family I recognize. One that’s not afraid to wear its crazy on the outside, that functions within its dysfunction, that looks at the rest of the world like it’s the insane one. They yell and fight and go all passive-aggressive on each other, but when the chips are down they come together because that’s what families do.

And it’s easily the funniest thing I’ve seen all summer.

The Hoover family is an interesting one. There’s Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker who is the patriarch of the family, and in the midst of attempting to get a book published on his nine-step program. Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the mother, once divorced and trying to hold the family together. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the sullen teenager who’s taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of being a test pilot in the Air Force. Olive (Abigail Breslin) is the little bundle of energy whose quest to win a beauty pageant drives the family from Albequerque to Redondo Beach. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of a nursing home for snorting heroin and made it his goal to get Olive ready for the talent portion of the competition. And Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is a suicidal gay Proust scholar.

This movie is all about the relationships amongst family members, and as such, the performances are paramount. All the actors here take their characters and make them work, so that even the ones who seem holier-than-thou at the beginning grow on you.

Steve Carell really stands out. After great comedic performances in movies like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he’s got a much more dramatic turn here and proves that he is one amazing actor. Frank has basically had everything that was ever important to him yanked away, and now can’t even be allowed to sleep alone. Carell nails him from the first scene, and keeps it up with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and a very funny way of running.

Richard, as a motivational speaker, has a nine-step program he’s practically convinced will turn the world around, and won’t shut up about it. He constantly talks about what makes a loser and a winner and has no problem holding up his family as examples of both. He seems blissfully unaware (or is aware and just doesn’t care) at how much everybody hates hearing about it. The scene where he nearly gives his seven-year-old daughter an eating disorder is classic.

Abigail Breslin is just adorable as Olive. She’s obsessed with pageants. She loves them. The first time we see her she is watching a taped one, mimicking the winner’s happy movements. And she is convinced it is this dedication that will win her Little Miss Sunshine, despite the fact that she looks like a normal seven-year-old girl and the others look like miniature supermodels. It’s that innocence that makes her so endearing.

Grandpa is hilarious, having reached that stage in his life where he just doesn’t care any more. He’ll do what he wants and say what he wants, much to Richard’s chagrin. The movie’s R-rating comes solely from his mouth. However, he loves his grandkids and dotes on Olive.

Although the road trip brings out the frayed bonds of the family’s relationship, it also reties them. Their common goal is to get Olive to Redondo Beach in time for the pageant, and as mishap upon mishap piles on them they only become more determined. Thus, the climax at the talent portion of the competition is as much an accomplishment for the family as it is for Olive.

Despite all that’s happened, where you’re on the brink of tears one minute and falling out of your chair laughing the next, it’s both funny and empowering, embracing that which makes us different and celebrating it without caring that the rest of the world probably thinks you’re stark raving mad.

God bless movies like Talladega Nights, which are wonderfully dumb comedies that provide quoting contests amongst friends for months to come. But bless even more the comedies like Little Miss Sunshine, which touch your heart even as they’re tickling your funny bone, and making you laugh all the harder for it.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.