“City of Miracles” by Robert Jackson Bennett

I enjoyed the first two Divine Cities books (see my reviews of City of Stairs and City of Blades) so I was looking forward to see how City of Miracles wrapped up the story.

This series changes protagonists in every installment, and this one is narrated by ex-spy and ex-royalty Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who was a secondary character in both the previous books. After the events of City of Blades, Sigrud has been working menial jobs and trying to stay hidden, waiting for Shara to find him somehow and give him a new assignment. When Shara is suddenly assassinated, he gains a purpose at last – finding Shara’s killer – but following that trail tumbles him into a covert war against a angry young god.

Just like the earlier two books, this one tells a self-contained story. It also wraps up the overarching plot arc of the six original Divinities in a satisfying manner. I wasn’t even sure what the overarching plot arc was, since the books seem designed to be standalones, but it was obvious by the end of the book and a lot of things from earlier made sense in retrospect.

I didn’t find Sigrud to be a particularly compelling character in the last two books so I was dreading his point of view a little bit. I should have trusted the author, though, because Sigrud from the inside is quite different from observing him through other characters’ eyes. We get to see what goes through his head when other characters only see him being silent and emotionless, and he’s much more sympathetic than I originally gave him credit for. I was similarly skeptical about the idea of Shara being dead (especially offscreen!), but the author handled that very well, too.

One of the things I love most about these books is the world – the Divinities and the way they manifest are unique and weird and wonderful. City of Miracles expands our understanding of the world and the mechanics of how the divine powers work even more, which was great. And the setting itself is interesting – a post-colonial era where everything has recently industrialized, and new engineering projects are far more likely to be brought up than magic, even though magic is more obviously present.

I feel like my enjoyment of these books kind of snuck up on me, but now I think of the series as one of the most innovative and original fantasy I’ve read. If you haven’t read this series already, I recommend starting with City of Stairs for the full impact.

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities, #3)
Broadway Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 30-May 6, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Thelma and Louise (1991)

I’ve been wanting to watch Thelma and Louise for a long time – it’s a classic, plus Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, and I like when he branches out from the epic films he’s so well-known for. I knew very little about it going in and wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

Diner waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) set out on a two day vacation, but when they end up shooting a potential rapist, they end up on the run from the law and events start escalating. I’m not quite sure what genre this movie falls under. It’s got a unique tone, part black comedy, part drama, part road movie, part tragedy, and probably a few other things as well. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and it has one of the best endings I’ve ever encountered. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are amazing in it. It’s not a perfect movie – Harvey Keitel’s character was a bit on the nose – but it’s very good.

I’ve heard that Thelma and Louise was a controversial movie when it first came out, and I can see why. Usually my husband and I end up having very similar opinions about the movies we watch, but we talked about this movie for weeks afterward. He found the characters (mostly Thelma) annoying, but they made perfect sense to me and I had nothing but sympathy for them, even when they made bad decisions.

Other Movies Watched

Split (2016)

James McAvoy plays a character suffering from dissociative identity disorder (he has 23 personalities) who kidnaps three teenage girls for nefarious purposes. I’m not usually a big fan of psychological horror, and I haven’t been too impressed by M. Night Shyamalan’s recent work, but once I heard that Split was set in the same universe as his earlier movie, Unbreakable, I was much more excited to watch it. Unbreakable was a terrific and grounded superhero story, an original story made to be a film rather than an adaptation of another medium. Split is a very different movie, but it has the same underlying DNA. James McAvoy does an outstanding job, there’s a particularly memorable scene where he cycles through a bunch of different personalities in the same shot. I was worried about the horror aspects of the movie (I scare easily) but it is really more of a slow drama than a horror movie and it never gets very scary. I’m excited to watch the next movie in the trilogy!

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

The Motorcycle Diaries is based on Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s memoirs of his motorcycle/hitchhiking journey across Latin America when he was in his early twenties. It’s a biopic that also fits into the road movie/coming-of-age genres, which is unusual. Che starts off the journey not really knowing who he is or what he really wants to do, but the people he meets on the road instill convictions in him that he didn’t realize he cared about. Any movie about famous people, especially revolutionary figures, risks being too much of a hagiography, but The Motorcycle Diaries makes Che seem like an ordinary and relatable person, thanks in large part to Gael Garcia Bernal’s portrayal.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a 1950s housewife with a successful husband, a thriving social life, and a beautiful house. When she finds out that her husband is attracted to other men, her life starts to fall apart. Her only solace is her friendship/burgeoning romance with an African-American gardener, but of course, that’s pretty scandalous for the times. This movie is very interestingly shot, the colors and camera angles are reminiscent of a 1950s film (Wikipedia tells me it is imitating the style of a particular director, Douglas Sirk, but I’m not familiar with his work). The actors all do a fantastic job, especially Julianne Moore. I thought this was an ambitious movie that succeeded at what it was attempting, but I didn’t love it because the characters didn’t display a lot of emotion and I found it hard to connect with them.

The Space Between Us (2017)

Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first person born on Mars, has the opportunity to visit Earth for the first time, and goes on a roadtrip with a girl he met online to try and find his biological father. I had high hopes for The Space Between Us when I first heard of it, but I knew it had terrible reviews by the time we watched it. Still, I’m a sucker for anything related to space, and I find teen drama comfortingly nostalgic, so I wanted to watch it anyway. It’s a terrible movie – the plot is drivel, the science is bogus, and some of the actors seem to be phoning it in – but I enjoyed watching it. The first part before Gardner gets to Earth is actually decent, but it devolves into cliches (street smart girl, fish-out-of-water boy) quickly.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Hyperintelligent genetically engineered sharks get tired of being experimented on and decide to destroy their creators instead. I knew this movie would be really dumb going in, but sometimes stupid disaster movies can be fun, and this is certainly one of those. There are people being picked off one-by-one, a silly half-developed romance, ominously moving fins, and of course, plenty of explosions. The emotional payoff was surprisingly good, usually in movies like this, the characters you like the most end up getting killed, and that wasn’t quite the case in this movie. There are also some scenes that are pretty funny, the movie clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is good. But still, a really dumb movie.

One Eight Seven (1997)

One Eight Seven is a weird thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as a teacher who is stabbed by a student in a gang-dominated neighborhood in New York, and then moves to L.A. to another gang-dominated neighborhood where he encounters some more threatening students. I really did not like this movie. The way it is filmed and acted is clearly intended to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and it definitely succeeds at that. It seems to want to be inspired by The Deer Hunter (which is explicitly referenced), but it’s really not in the same league. I had a hard time getting invested in any of the characters, even though Samuel L. Jackson does his best.

“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

I don’t usually read much nonfiction, but I was interested in Evicted because a few of the people I follow on LibraryThing wrote rave reviews of it on their threads. When it popped up on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, I requested it, and I was surprised to actually end up winning a copy. Also, in the time between reading it and writing a review, apparently it has won the Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this year.

Evicted follows eight families and their landlords in Milwaukee as they go through the eviction process. The families and the reasons they end up evicted are quite different, but we get a clear picture of their lives and how they ended up where they are. We feel their anxiety and hopelessness, and it’s very hard not to sympathize with them, even when they make impulsive decisions that seem like they’re going to make things worse.

I would say that this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, perhaps all time. Most non-fiction books annoy me because they seem to have an idea that they’re pushing and pull in only the relevant facts, but Desmond presents events as they happen without too much commentary (he actually lived in two different low-income neighbourhoods for a year and most of the conversations recounted in the book are transcribed verbatim from audio recordings.) By focusing on the lives of both tenants and landlords, the book paints a balanced picture without moral judgment.

Desmond doesn’t just tell us individual stories, he also connects it to larger patterns and weaves in general research based on surveying over a thousand poor families. He makes a convincing case that evictions disrupt people’s lives extensively, making it much harder for them to escape poverty. He also shows how existing fair housing laws don’t always work as designed – for instance, landlords can evict tenants for causing a “nuisance”, which means calling the police too often. This means that in practice, women suffering domestic abuse often risk eviction by seeking help.

The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on solutions – there is a single chapter advocating a potential solution, but the main purpose is just to highlight the problem. I’m not sure what the answers are either,  but I think more people need to read this book so we can have a conversation about it. I’m also looking for recommendations for similar books (in style and tone), so please comment if you know of any!

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 23-29, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Moonlight (2016)

I knew we were going to have to watch Moonlight eventually, since it won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but I wasn’t really looking forward to it because it sounded really depressing. The Academy knows what they’re talking about, though, because Moonlight is a fantastic movie.

We follow Chiron, a young black man through three decades of his life – as a kid, a teenager, and an adult – as he navigates his sexuality, his poverty, and life in general. Unusually for movie protagonists, Chiron is introverted and sensitive, and the movie doesn’t try to disguise it. There are long periods of silence where no one says anything, and the actors still manage to convey a world of emotion. There’s not much drama in this movie, and the most dramatic events happen off-camera anyway, allowing the audience to be entirely inside Chiron’s head.

If you’ve been putting off watching Moonlight like I was, don’t!

Other Movies Watched

Fargo (1996)

I’m not a big Coen Brothers fan – I know they’re great filmmakers, and I don’t dislike their movies exactly, but they always seem heartless somehow. Fargo is an exception, though – it’s both scathingly funny and adorable, depending on the characters you’re seeing. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, playing his usual sad-sack) attempts to get his wife kidnapped in order to extort ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law, but due to general ineptitude on the part of pretty much everyone, things go horribly wrong. Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson, the cop investigating one of the incidental crimes. The acting is terrific, the Minnesota/North Dakota winter setting adds a great deal of atmosphere, and the writing and emotional payoff is spot-on.

Loving (2016)

After watching the excellent Midnight Special, I was on board with pretty much anything else that Jeff Nichols wrote and directed, so I was excited to watch this movie about the Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple that caused the Supreme Court to rule that state miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Like Midnight Special, this movie drops you right into the life of the Lovings without too much explanation, and it chooses to focus on the people rather than the larger civil rights issue. The Lovings aren’t an exceptional family, and they’re not on a crusade to change anything – they just happen to be discovered by the ACLU. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton do an excellent job making the Lovings feel like people you probably know, and that makes their story more poignant than if the movie had followed the traditional tropes of trying to make you care about them.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief who has had no luck obtaining a more steady job. He observes a crew of stringers covering a car accident to obtain footage to sell to local television, and decides to enter the profession himself. He turns out to be extremely good at it, especially when he starts crossing ethical boundaries to obtain better footage. Jake Gyllenhaal is simultaneously creepy and compelling as Bloom, and the movie treats his story as both horrifying and like a success story – scenes where he’s done something amoral to get ahead are often scored triumphantly. The rest of the cast is really great, too, especially Rene Russo as a television producer who is desperate for more and more lurid footage to keep her job.

La La Land (2016)

This movie has gotten a lot of great press, and we loved Damien Chazelle’s earlier movie, Whiplash, so I fully expected to love La La Land as well. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an actress trying to chase their respective dreams in Los Angeles. The movie is very well-made, and when I was watching it, the phrase “ode to moviemaking” kept popping into my head, and I think that describes it well. Much like Whiplash, the protagonists are obsessed with their work and everything else (including their relationship) comes a distant second, but unlike Whiplash, they seemed more like archetypes than sympathetic characters. The music is excellent, and the technical skill is amazing, especially in the sequence at the end (you’ll know it when you see it), but I just wasn’t invested in what was actually happening, so unfortunately I can’t say that I loved it.

Batman Returns (1992)

I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies, so we’re watching them in order. Batman Returns has Tim Burton returning as director and Michael Keaton starring as Batman, this time going up against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and evil industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). It was much better than the first movie, I particularly liked the Batman/Catwoman relationship. It’s still fairly ridiculous and a little uncomfortable to watch, just like most Tim Burton films.

Gold (2016)

I was expecting great things from Gold, since it was written/directed by Stephen Gaghan, who did the terrific Syriana. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it was definitely underwhelming. It’s based on the Bre-X mining scandal, and stars Matthew McConaughey as a down-on-his-luck miner who teams up with a geologist who claims to know where to find a massive deposit of gold. McConaughey does a good job at playing an average hapless guy, but I don’t think it makes use of his talent. I can’t find anything else notable to say about this movie, it seemed like one of those movies which you’d never hear about but encounter on TV when channel-surfing (if people even do that anymore) and think was kind of interesting.

“The Waking Fire” by Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan has been on my wishlist for a long time, so I was excited to receive a copy of The Waking Fire from Ace recently. I’ve been reading a lot of books about dragons recently (Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood, which I still need to review), so I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this one just yet, but I succumbed to the back cover blurb.

We follow three protagonists – Lizanne, a covert agent for the Ironship company, Hilemore, a naval officer serving on a cutting-edge new ship, and Clay, a petty criminal recruited by Lizanne’s company for a dangerous expedition. Drake blood, which grants “Blood-blessed” humans special powers, has been dwindling in potency rapidly. To avoid a disastrous economic collapse, the Ironship company is organizing an expedition into the interior of the colonized Arradisian continent to find a fabled new variety of drake. This new White drake isn’t just a simple animal, though, and waking it up proves to be dangerous.

There’s a lot going on this book, all three protagonists have pretty different stories, and I don’t think my summary covered it all.  Clay is on a standard fantasy quest, Lizanne’s plot is all about espionage and war , and Hilemore seems like he’s straight out of a more traditional military fantasy. All three of them tie together to tell a larger story about a rational and ordered world that’s suddenly going crazy. The world really pulled me in, there’s a bunch of corporations pursuing profit, a simple but versatile magic system, an ambitious empire, cunning pirates, fearsome warriors, and lots of cool dragons. The action scenes were particularly well-done, I could almost see the movie in my head, and I usually just glaze over those kinds of scenes in books.

I did have a couple of issues with the book, mainly with the characters. Sometimes I felt like they just did stuff, and I didn’t have any insight into why they were making the decisions they did. It was never bad enough to take me out of the story, but unlike more character driven books, I can’t really describe the characters’ personalities, just their actions. The book also wasn’t as tight as it could have been – Hilemore’s story didn’t tie into Lizanne and Clay’s until the last minute, and I’m still not sure what the significance of his experiences is to the larger story. I also hope the initial premise of drake blood losing potency will be explored in future books, it ended up being overshadowed by larger events.

I feel like I’ve read a lot of the great fantasy authors writing today, so I’m always excited to discover someone new, and Anthony Ryan seems like he could definitely be one of them. I’m glad I only have a little over a month until The Legion of Flame comes out, and I’ve also ordered Blood Song, the first book of the author’s previous trilogy, to help me wait.

The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (The Draconis Memoria, #1)
Ace Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Snapshot” by Brandon Sanderson

Snapshot is a near-future science fiction novella set in a world where an entire city can be recreated virtually so that detectives can investigate crimes (kind of like the movie Source Code.) We follow Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz as they investigate a murder and stumble onto a larger crime than the one they were originally assigned.

I’m usually a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work, but I didn’t think Snapshot was that good. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it didn’t pull me in like most of his other work. I was intrigued by the premise, but I wasn’t quite able to connect with the characters, and since the story depends entirely on the relationship between Davis and Chaz, I wasn’t invested in the outcome. The book seemed to be going for a gritty tone, and I don’t think that is the author’s forte – I usually associate his worldbuilding with a lot of detail, but this book seemed very shallow somehow.

I think Snapshot would work better as a movie (not something I say very often), and it’s actually been optioned by MGM, so I’m hoping something comes out of that.

Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson
Vault Books, 2017 | Buy the book

“Within the Sanctuary of Wings” by Marie Brennan

I’m a huge fan of the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, and I’ve been waiting for this concluding volume, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, for a long time. This series stars Isabella (Lady Trent), pioneering female dragon naturalist, in a secondary world reminiscent of the Victorian era. Isabella has trekked all over the world in pursuit of dragons, and this installment is no exception – she’s chasing a rumor of a new dragon species to the inhospitable Mrtyahaima mountains, home to the tallest peaks in the world. And of course she’s also getting mixed up in international politics along the way.

One of the reasons I like these books so much is that the climax is always about discovery – sure, there’s adventure, action, and near disaster, and maybe the story wouldn’t be so compelling without them, but lots of books have those. Isabella’s drive to learn more about her world is what makes her story stand out. The previous four books have been slowly building up to a great draconic revelation and I was eager to find out what it was. In retrospect, it ended up being obvious (a fact that Isabella alludes to in her narrative), but the author has been doing such a good job of building up the world and the rules that it operates on that I was as amazed as the characters.

Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this book. If you haven’t read this series, start at A Natural History of Dragons and keep going. If you have read the series, this is a great conclusion, it’s satisfying and there are no loose ends, so stop reading my review and acquire the book!

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan (Lady Trent's Memoirs, #5)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 16-22, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Green Mile (1999)

I’ve been wanting to watch The Green Mile for a really long time – The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time, and this is also a historical movie set in prison, directed by Frank Darabont, based on a Stephen King story. Plus, it stars Tom Hanks! How could it not be good?

Paul Edgecombe is an officer in charge of death row at a Louisiana prison during the 1930s. His block gets a new inmate, John Coffey, who is the gentlest inmate Paul has encountered, despite the horrific crimes he has been convicted of. It eventually becomes apparent that John has mysterious supernatural powers (good ones, not scary ones) as he starts to affect the lives of many of the people he meets.

The Green Mile is a long movie – over three hours – and it tells its story slowly. This is a good thing, there’s a great sense of atmosphere, and we get to know all of the characters very well. This movie would not have worked without Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance as John Coffey, he utterly sells the innocence and suffering without ever coming across as hokey. I also liked that most of the prison guards were portrayed as nice people who genuinely wanted to make the lives of their prisoners better, even when the world hated them.

Other Movies Watched

Escape from New York (1981)

In the future, crime has risen astronomically, and Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When the President’s plane crashes into the prison, war hero and convicted bank robber Snake Plissken (one of Kurt Russell’s most iconic roles) is sent in to retrieve him in exchange for amnesty. I saw Escape from New York a few years ago, but I didn’t remember much of it except that it was a great sci-fi action classic, and Snake Plissken was awesome. Well, that’s still true, but this time around I’m much more familiar with the tropes of sci-fi action genre, so I noticed more details, like how great the worldbuilding was, even with very little dialogue, and how much this movie influenced later sci-fi action movies.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Steel Magnolias follows the lives of a group of women in a small Louisiana town over a couple of years – Truvy (Dolly Parton), the local beauty salon owner, Annelle (Daryl Hannah), her new employee with a troubled past, and four of her customers – older widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), mother/daughter M’Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby (Julia Roberts), and their neighbor Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). M’Lynn and Shelby are the real heart of the movie, although every woman has a character arc. I don’t think I’ve seen many movies which revolved entirely around the life of women in such a realistic way, I wish there were more. It’s heartwarming, tragic, frustrating, and really good.

Secret In Their Eyes (2015)

I am a fan of writer/director Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass), so I was excited about Secret In Their Eyes. I watched the trailer a while ago, and I was expecting some sort of mediocre murder mystery thriller, but fortunately the movie turned out to be much more interesting than that. It’s based on the 2009 Argentine film of the same name (which won the best foreign film Oscar) and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ray Kasten, a former FBI officer haunted by an old case involving the rape and murder of his colleague Jess’s daughter. The case was never solved, but when the alleged perpetrator resurfaces after 13 years, he gets all of the old investigating officers involved in a new effort to capture him. This movie has a great cast, and Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts (whose part was originally written for a man) in particular are excellent. The movie has great tension without resorting to melodrama, and the resolution that it builds up to is very satisfying.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has spent all his life in an orphanage. His mentor and the orphanage’s doctor, Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), expects him to continue working at the orphanage, but he wants to see the world. He ends up leaving with a couple that visits the orphanage and gets a job as an apple picker. The Cider House Rules is very much a coming of age story, and it’s an unusually good one. Homer learns about the world, and that includes some immensely screwed up things happening, but the movie presents both the bad and the good things in a matter-of-fact way. I think the most notable thing about this movie for me was that it portrayed kind people, terrible people, and people that were neither. Most movies don’t display such a diversity of characterization, and I enjoyed it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos is a first generation Greek-American who is the despair of her family because she hasn’t gotten married yet even though she’s 30. She works at her father’s restaurant but dreams of a more fulfilling life. She gets more than she bargained for when she falls in love with Ian, a WASP, and they decide to get married. Despite the title of the movie, the wedding doesn’t take up more than a third of the movie, most of it is a coming of age story where Toula finally begins to feel comfortable with both herself and her roots. It was great to see a movie about the more ethnic communities of America – many of the situations and scenes were uncannily familiar to me as a recent immigrant who married a more traditional American. It’s a pretty good movie, it’s funny, it has heart, and the fact that star Nia Vardalos is also the writer lends it authenticity.

Elizabethtown (2005)

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has just been fired from his company for designing a flawed shoe that resulted in huge losses. He doesn’t feel like he has anything to live for anymore, but before he can follow through on his plan to commit suicide, he learns that his father has died. He travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to retrieve his father’s body and discovers a whole new side to life, especially through the bubbly flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) he meets on the plane. I usually like Cameron Crowe’s movies, but I wasn’t a huge fan of this one – it’s got all the components of a good movie, but it felt empty somehow. This movie also originated the “manic pixie dream girl” trope for a good reason – it was hard for me to believe that Kirsten Dunst’s character was anything approaching a real person.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 9-15, 2017

Favorite Movies of the Week

Broadcast News (1987)

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a news producer who is very good at her job but also has daily emotional breakdowns. She works closely with brilliant and cocky reporter Aaron Altman (who’s in love with her), but when handsome news anchor Tom Grunick joins the network, she can’t help but pursue him despite the fact that he does not share any of her ideals about what news should be. I don’t think that’s a very good description of the movie, but I’m not sure I can do better – this movie is just about the interaction of Jane, Aaron, and Tom until external circumstances make it impossible for them to work together, set in the background of a changing news landscape.

The only other James L. Brooks directed movie I’ve seen is Spanglish, and judging by both these movies, he’s one of my new favorite directors because he makes great movies about real, ordinary people interacting with each other. The only other director that I can think of who consistently has such identifiable women is Sofia Coppola. Broadcast News was apparently nominated for seven Oscars, and that makes total sense to me. Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt all put in amazing performances – very few movies make you feel like you know characters as well as these ones. I also thought the conclusion of the movie was satisfying and realistic.

The Dressmaker (2015)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Australian movie described as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”. Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, an expert dressmaker who returns to her childhood home of Dungatar after a long absence. She’s bitter since she was accused of murder as a child and driven out of town, but tries to set up a business since she needs to take care of her sick mother. But people in small towns can be utterly unforgiving, and she doesn’t find it easy.

At first, you think this is the kind of movie where a stranger moves into a small town and they’re quirky but eventually change everyone’s lives for the better. Tilly’s dresses make people look fabulous and turn the fortunes of a few women around. But The Dressmaker is actually a black comedy, and subverts a lot of those tropes. I don’t want to say more – it’s best experienced for yourself, but not only was this a better movie than I thought it would be before I saw it, it was way better than I thought it would be even midway through the movie.

Other Movies Watched

Maverick (1994)

Professional gambler Bret Maverick is a few thousand dollars short of the money he needs to enter a one-of-a-kind high stakes poker game, but he just isn’t having a very good week. This is a western comedy (which I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any other examples of before) and it’s a lot of fun. Mel Gibson has impeccable comic timing as Maverick, Jodie Foster is endearing as the incorrigible thief Annabelle, and those two actors really make the movie work. Some popular western tropes are subverted (lovingly) – the writer of the movie also wrote The Princess Bride, and there’s a lot of the same charm. Plus there are a lot of cameos and references to other movies – my favorite was when Danny Glover (Mel Gibson’s partner in the Lethal Weapon series) showed up briefly.

Patriots Day (2016)

Peter Berg’s second movie of 2016 about a real-life disaster starring Mark Wahlberg (after Deepwater Horizon), Patriots Day tells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. I actually lived an hour away in Providence when this happened, but I knew very little about it because I was in India visiting my parents at the time and I missed most of the real-time coverage. The movie tells the story well, we see events from a few different perspectives – bombing victims, police officers, and the victims of the aftermath when the bombers fled. It’s formulaic, but it makes you sympathize with the situation without trying to tell you how to feel by focusing on melodrama. I read about the real events afterwards, and it seems the movie actually stayed very faithful to the facts, which I appreciated.

Little Man Tate (1991)

Jodie Foster’s directorial debut is about seven year old child prodigy Fred Tate who is torn between his mother (Jodie Foster), who is loving can’t understand his mind and the founder of an institute for gifted children (Dianne Wiest), who gets him intellectually but is neurotic and stiff otherwise. Both women care for Fred, but have very different approaches to dealing with him, sort of like the central conflict of A Bronx Tale. Unlike A Bronx Tale, though, the movie is not about the kid, it’s about the women’s journey to growing to be able to provide Fred with both an emotionally stable and intellectually challenging environment. I liked most of the movie quite a bit, but I thought the ending was too neat and oversimplified a complicated situation. I thought the kid playing Fred did a terrific job, though.

The Client (1994)

Eleven year old Mark Sway and his younger brother Ricky are playing in the woods when they stumble into a famous mafia lawyer who is committing suicide, but not before he tells Mark the location of a recently murdered senator’s body. Suddenly Mark becomes the recipient of a whole lot of attention – from the ambitious district attorney who is determined to convict the mobsters, from the mob who wants to silence him before he says anything, and from reporters. This movie is based on the John Grisham book of the same name, and John Grisham movies are a genre of their own (I’ve seen The Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, Runaway Jury, and The Pelican Brief so far) – they’re thrillers with over-the-top plots and melodramatic characters, usually involving lawyers. The Client fit that mold very well, with some great performances by Susan Sarandon as inexperienced lawyer Reggie Love and Brad Renfro in his film debut as Mark Sway.

The Discovery (2017)

I’m always looking for new, good, science-fiction films, so I was excited to read about the Netflix original film The Discovery in an Ars Technica article. Robert Redford’s in it, plus I enjoyed both director Charlie McDowell’s first movie The One I Love, and the last Netflix original science fiction movie I watched (Spectral), so I figured The Discovery would be pretty good. Unfortunately I was wrong and this movie is terrible. Movies that deal with metaphysics can be amazing, but this movie seems to think it’s being profound when it’s actually incredibly trite. The dialogue is awkward at best, and the two main romantic leads have no chemistry. In fact, everyone’s acting seems stiff and wooden. Hopefully this isn’t the standard that Netflix is setting for their original movies.

“Lock In” by John Scalzi

After reading The Collapsing Empire, I was in the mood to read more Scalzi, and luckily, I’ve had Lock In on my to-be-read list ever since it came out.

Lock In is a near future novel set after a disease known as Haden’s syndrome left millions of people across the world “locked in” – unable to control their bodies but fully conscious. High-profile patients spurred the accelerated development of technology to allow these “Hadens” to participate in life again though neural implants, virtual reality, and robot bodies, among other things. It’s been a while since that all happened, and the government benefits that many Hadens relied on is about to be repealed, and it is an uncertain time.

This is all just background for the story, though – the actual story begins when rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is assigned to investigate a murder where the prime suspect is an Integrator (a regular human who allows Hadens to rent their body.) It stays a pretty solid mystery/thriller type novel throughout, and usually I don’t care that much about that genre, but the worldbuilding and slowly unfolding plot kept me hooked. Scalzi takes the premise and runs with it, exploring how a disease like Haden’s would affect society in both big and small ways. I felt like I identified with the main character a little more than most people because I work remotely and haven’t met many of my coworkers in person.

If you’d like to find out more about the world, Tor.com has a novella that explores the history of Haden’s here. I think this is one of Scalzi’s better books, even though the content was pretty different, it reminded me a lot of the thoughtfulness of Old Man’s War.  I can’t wait to read the follow up, Head On.

Lock In by John Scalzi (Lock In, #1)
Tor Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.