Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 1-6, 2018

Favorite Movie of the Week

Dunkirk (2017)

I am a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work (InceptionInterstellar, Insomnia, The Prestige, the Dark Knight trilogy) so I was thrilled when I finally got to watch Dunkirk. I don’t know enough about world history, but I did read about the Dunkirk evacuation in the World War II history I read in 2016, and I was excited to watch a movie about something I already knew about instead of the other way around.

Dunkirk is about a near-miraculous evacuation of around 300,000 British, French, and other allied troops (representing a large portion of the armies of those countries) who had been trapped on the beaches of the city of Dunkirk by German forces. I thought a straight-up historical drama didn’t exactly seem like Christopher Nolan’s style and I was right. Dunkirk is told in three narratives, each with a different timeline: a week, a day, and an hour. This might sound confusing but the film organizes it well so it all makes sense. Other than technical merit, this was a cool way to tell the story because the different perspectives showed both the extensive planning and the urgency of the evacuation in a way that a single timeline would not be able to.

It’s a good war film; it throws you right into the mayhem and terror of battle and shows appropriate tragedy while leaving room for hope. It’s also emotionally gratifying (which I was worried about because Nolan’s movies focus on the intellectual) without being overly sentimental.

Other Movies Watched

The Right Stuff (1983)

I love everything to do with space and I’ve been wanting to watch this movie about the test pilots and astronauts of the earliest years of the American space program for a really long time. It is over 3 hours long, though, so it’s not a movie I’d watch on a weeknight.

The Right Stuff is the story of Project Mercury, the first American human spaceflight program. We start off with test pilot Chuck Yeager as he gets the chance to fly the experimental X-1 aircraft and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier. Fast forward a few years, Sputnik has just been launched and the United States decides to prioritize the space program and selects its first batch of astronauts from elite test pilots across the military.

Even though there is no single main character, all the pilots and astronauts have “the right stuff” – they are courageous risk-takers who can stay calm under pressure and can deal with the possibility of failing in full public view, and that theme of being larger than life almost seems like the protagonist. I’m not saying that all the characters seemed alike, in fact they all have fully fleshed out and distinct personalities (and so do their wives), but they all fit into the larger story that’s being told about the audacity of attempting human spaceflight. It is awe-inspiring (but that might just be the space nut in me). I bought the book this is based on immediately after the movie as well as a handful of other books about space.

Predator (1987)

I didn’t know that Predator was made by celebrated action movie director John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red OctoberDie HardLast Action Hero) or that it’s so critically acclaimed. My introduction to the universe was from watching the terrible Alien vs. Predator when it first came out and the Alien series always seemed so much more interesting because it’s set in space and in the future. I’m glad I finally got around to watching it though, because it is great.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the leader of a special forces team being hunted by a mysterious alien while on a mission to rescue a hostage from insurgents in a South American jungle. Like Alien, this is a monster movie that follows the standard formula of individual members of a group getting slowly picked off. But it is primarily an action movie; the protagonists are members of an elite military unit used to dealing with skilled enemies and the Predator is so terrifying because we see it outwit their defenses and precautions with ease. Ensemble casts in movies of this genre tend to be an unmemorable collection of archetypes but Predator is an exception; I can still remember most team members as I write this review more than four months after watching the movie. As you’d expect from a John McTiernan movie, the pacing is terrific and the tension never lets up. Highly recommended.

Tin Men (1987)

Tin Men is the second of director Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Films” (after Diner) set in mid-century Baltimore.  It’s a comedy about BB and Ernest, two aluminum-siding salesmen (played by Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito) who develop a rivalry and will stop at nothing to get one over the other guy. Meanwhile, their industry is changing rapidly around them as government cracks down on the scams they depend on to get new customers.

I thought this was just a comedy about the crazy lengths people will go to compete with each other (like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The War of the Roses, reviewed below) and there is quite a bit of that, but at its heart Tin Men is focused on its characters. BB and Ernest are dealing with professional uncertainty and unsatisfactory personal lives and aren’t coping with them very well. Both DeVito and Dreyfuss have excellent comic timing but they also show you that their characters are ordinary people with messy lives that and that makes them relatable despite the extreme things they do sometimes. I didn’t expect the story to go where it did (especially the plot involving Ernest’s wife) but I was content with the results.

The War of the Roses (1989)

Contrary to what I thought at first, this is not a historical drama about the fifteenth century English civil war. It’s about a couple, Oliver and Barbara Rose, whose marriage falls apart and sparks a spectacular divorce battle in which each tries to cause the other as much misery as they possibly can.

The Roses are played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner who were outrageously delightful together in Romancing the Stone. Their chemistry serves them just as well here since they’re still reacting to each other with strong emotions and they completely sell not being able to stand the sight of the other person. Well, actually it’s a little more nuanced; Barbara really hates Oliver, but Oliver just doesn’t want Barbara to get the better of him (and that’s an important nuance because having different motivations adds depth to the characters). Danny DeVito (who was also in Romancing the Stone) both directs and plays a supporting character and he’s great at finding the humor in small details and making preposterous situations feel grounded (just like in Matilda).

Overboard (1987)

When a spoiled heiress suffers an accident that leaves her an amnesiac, a carpenter that she has recently cheated decides to take his revenge by convincing her that she is his wife and handing off responsibility for housekeeping and taking care of his four rambunctious children.

Obviously Overboard‘s premise is not realistic (and if it was, it would be a horror movie) and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Off-screen couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn (who play the two main characters) have chemistry and make this movie more than just another ridiculous comedy. There were a lot of funny and over-the-top scenes, but the moments of character growth (for both characters) were genuine and warm. It’s rare that a movie can strike that balance effectively.

I found out while writing this review that there’s a gender-swapped remake of Overboard coming out this year. I’m skeptical of it because I think the main reason the original movie worked is because of the actors, it would have been heartless and empty without them.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 24-31, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown is a frequent member of various lists of best movies ever made and its place is well-deserved. It’s a noir classic and it’s been hugely influential in a number of ways. It’s got incredible performances, an iconic score, and a screenplay that’s widely considered one of the best of all time.

J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator that specializes in finding evidence of cheating spouses. Gittes’ latest case goes sideways when his client’s husband ends up murdered and it turns out that the woman who hired Gittes is not actually the wife of the man he’s been following.

Gittes is a great character. Superficially, he comes off as a tough guy, but he’s the moral center of the movie. He does the right thing, which includes implying that he would be willing to do otherwise. We see the events of the movie exclusively through his point of view which takes us on the same rollercoaster of emotions that he is subject to throughout the narrative; we don’t know what’s happening until he does. The movie’s atmosphere is also incredibly immersive – the music, the lighting, the dialogue, and everything else works together to create the imperfect world that Gittes has to deal with. The plot is pretty typical of noir, but it makes sense, it’s well-told and has a fitting ending.

Other Movies Watched

Bright (2017)

Bright is probably the movie that I’ve been most eagerly anticipating this year. It pushes all my buttons – it’s directed by David Ayer (who wrote the excellent Training Day and directed Fury and End of Watch), it stars Will Smith (I’m a fan) and Joel Edgerton (who I’ve liked in Midnight Special and Loving), and most importantly it’s an urban fantasy movie! There is a serious dearth of interesting fantasy movies, especially urban fantasy which usually tells stories that would be a good fit for film.

Anyway I went into this with a serious bias, but I loved it. It had an interesting reception – most critics did not like it, but the audience did (see Rotten Tomatoes), and I’m not surprised by that. Reading fantasy is probably my favorite thing in the world, so I found it easy to suspend disbelief and get into the world of the movie. Also if you ignore the setting, it’s a pretty standard buddy-cop movie. But it did have an original setting and interesting worldbuilding throughout the movie and I enjoyed the characters. I also appreciated its light tone and low stakes; all fantasy does not have to be epic. Plus, I’m a sucker for originality and I like movies that try something new even if they deliver something slightly uneven. I’m so excited that they’re making a sequel!

Heathers (1988)

I’d been wanting to watch Heathers for a while because I’m fond of both black comedies and teen movies (especially 80s teen movies). Veronica is a member of the popular clique at her school, the other three members of which are all rich and pretty girls named Heather. She’s tired of putting up with the Heathers and becomes fascinated by a new student, J.D., who seems to be able to handle anything that comes his way. Their mutual attraction gets out of hand quickly when their dates usually end in murder.

Being a teen can be painful and everyone has fantasies about the people they have problems with simply disappearing. Heathers takes those fantasies and runs with them and the result is incisive and hilarious. There’s something deeply compelling about J.D.’s cheerful bloodthirstiness and Veronica’s struggle between giving into her desire for retribution and being a normal, moral person. This is in large part because of Christian Slater and Winona Ryder’s performances; they both steal every scene they are in.

Colossal (2016)

I was intrigued by Colossal‘s premise of a twenty-something woman realizing that a series of attacks by a giant monster in Seoul was connected to her everyday actions. But I was also worried that it was just a gimmick and that the movie would fall apart halfway through, since I wasn’t sure how that situation would be explained or resolved. My concerns were unfounded though; this is a fun and internally consistent movie.

I like the recent trend of Western movies being inspired by Japanese media. I haven’t seen a lot of kaiju/mecha shows but I’m familiar enough with them to appreciate the references (and I absolutely love Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim). Colossal marries that genre and the heroism that comes with it to the indie-film trope of someone coming to terms with the choices they’ve made in their life and the responsibilities that come with it (like Garden State or Elizabethtown) and actually manages to pull it off. Anne Hathaway does a terrific job as the initially useless protagonist who eventually learns to use her agency. I can’t think of any other movies with a female protagonist that have this type of character growth (Lost in Translation and Ghost World are the closest ones, but their protagonists are very different), although I’m sure there are a few. The parts of the story that deal with the powers the characters possess reminded me a little of Chronicle; it was grounded and easy to relate to.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

People in the early 90s sure loved epic dramas; in addition to this movie, this was also the time of Braveheart, The English Patient, Dances with Wolves, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (and that’s just off the top of my head).

The Last of the Mohicans follows the last three members of the Mohicans, a dying native American tribe, who get involved in protecting the daughters of a British Colonel during the French and Indian war. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the protagonist, half-white Hawkeye; the other two Mohicans are his adoptive brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) and father Chingachgook (Russell Means). I found myself thinking about The English Patient and Legends of the Fall while I was watching this; their stories differ greatly but they share a similar tone of melancholy and expansiveness. There was clearly a lot of thought put into making the setting of the movie feel authentic and I appreciated that. But behind its pretty window dressing, this movie doesn’t make you think too much; it sticks to the familiar heroic tropes, which makes it fun to watch but ultimately not that notable.

Indignation (2016)

Indignation is the directorial debut of James Schamus, who has written many of Ang Lee’s movies (of which I am a big fan), so I’ve been wanting to see it for a while. It follows Marcus, a working-class Jewish student attending a small Christian college in Ohio in the 1950s.

As the title suggests, Marcus reacts to everything with indignation. He has the arrogance common to teenagers who realize they are smarter than most people around them but haven’t realized how much they don’t know yet and how little being smart actually matters. The movie is excruciating to watch because you see him react to situation after situation with the same resentful stubbornness and you’re just acutely frustrated (or maybe that was just me, I kept being reminded of myself as a 15-year-old in my Ayn Rand phase and being immensely glad I wasn’t that person anymore). Logan Lerman does an excellent job as the main character, his self-righteous conviction just leaps off the screen. I didn’t find any major flaws with the main narrative but I found the framing story a little too saccharine and on-the-nose.

The Book Thief (2013)

Liesel, a young girl, is sent to live with a foster family in Germany after her mother can no longer support her. She has trouble fitting in at first. When she’s finally becoming comfortable with her new life, World War II breaks out and her family begins harboring Max, the son of a Jewish family friend. Liesel connects with Max by reading him books that she “borrows” from the mayor’s house, hence the title of the movie.

I can’t help but identify with characters that love to read so Liesel automatically had my sympathies (especially in the scene where books are being burned; I was furious). The movie is heartwarming and had some lovely performances. I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Rush as Liesel’s warm foster father and Nico Liersch as her best friend, Rudy. I found the movie as a whole somewhat bland, though. It took a very safe and well-tread direction with its portrayal of its setting and the relationships between characters.

The Bling Ring (2013)

Even though The Bling Ring is made by Sofia Coppola (one of my favorite directors, see: The Beguiled, The Virgin Suicides), I wasn’t that excited about it because the idea of a movie about a bunch of entitled kids stealing famous people’s clothes didn’t appeal to me. I tried to approach the movie with an open mind, though, since I was aware of my bias.

Coppola is skilled at making privileged protagonists relatable (see: Somewhere, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), but I just didn’t connect with the characters in this movie. And while I appreciate realism in most movies, in this case, it just translated to seeing kids “break” into houses (usually just by retrieving a key) and find rooms full of clothes and accessories that they stole from and then bragged about later. There’s no suspense or danger to liven it up. The dialogue was also painfully natural; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near these people in real life. I think the reason I’m more sympathetic to Coppola’s other protagonists is that they are usually passively unhappy or unable to do anything about their situation; that’s a situation that we all find ourselves in. This movie was all about people making actively narcissistic and criminal decisions repeatedly, and that’s not as easy to stomach.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 17-23, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

I’ve been looking forward to watching Beasts of No Nation for a couple of reasons. I read Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his days as a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone) about a decade ago and many of the scenes described in the book have stuck with me through the years. Plus I really enjoyed director/writer/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre.

We follow Agu, a young West African boy whose village is caught up in a civil war between government and rebel forces. He loses contact with his family and ends up initiated into the NDF, a rebel militia led by a charismatic commandant. This movie does not shy away from depicting the graphic details of war, and it is horrifying to watch, especially because the young soldiers can go from childlike behavior to murderousness instantly. The commandant (played by the ever-reliable Idris Elba) is similarly scary (you would have to be if you’re actively recruiting children to be soldiers), but he has his own human moments too. The best thing about the movie is that it does not shy away from the complexities of the situation and the impact that has on its characters. There’s terror and fear but there’s also friendship and family and it all merges together just like it does for Agu.

The child actors all do an extraordinary job, but especially Abraham Attah who plays Agu. At no point did I think about the fact that I was watching someone act, despite all the nuance that the role demanded.

Other Movies Watched

No Country for Old Men (2007)

I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. For a long time I was vaguely resentful of it because it won the Best Picture Oscar and I couldn’t imagine any movie that year actually being better than There Will Be Blood. After watching it, my opinion hasn’t changed but this is still an excellent movie.

When out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds more than two million dollars in cash from a drug exchange gone wrong. He decides to keep the money, triggering a murderous rampage by hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is investigating the murders, anticipates the consequences but is helpless to stop them from occurring.

The hitman Chigurh is the character who drives the whole plot, and he is a psychopath. He follows a set of strict rules that make his actions weirdly admirable, even as he slaughters innocent people. It is not a happy movie. But it has a bleak atmosphere and some beautiful cinematography, it tells a tight story, has exceptional performances by all the actors, and is paced perfectly.

The Master (2012)

I find the existence of cults deeply disturbing and director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t exactly make movies that are comfortable to watch anyway, so I wasn’t looking forward to watching this movie even though I knew it would probably be terrific.

We focus on Freddie Quell a troubled World War II veteran, who falls in with “The Cause”, a cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd and becomes a part of his entourage. Joaquin Phoenix is great at playing serious and intense weirdos and Freddie Quell in this movie might be the most intense weirdo he has ever played. He is impulsive, dangerously volatile, and easily disliked. Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his opposite – charismatic, contemplative, and poised. Yet the two men are drawn to each other despite constant reminders of their differences. I wouldn’t touch either of them with a ten foot pole but watching them react to each other is fascinating.

The dynamics of how cults work are depicted well and it frankly terrified me to see how susceptible people are to those behaviors. Freddie is able to fill a hole in his life with Dodd’s group because it’s easier than finding purpose and meaning on his own, and that seems like a fairly common situation.

The Verdict (1982)

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer who has been relegated to ambulance chasing after he was framed for jury tampering years ago. When his friend refers a simple medical malpractice case to him, he sees an opportunity to both do the right thing morally and improve his reputation and takes the case to trial against everyone’s expectations.

I’m used to legal dramas about evil corporations being stirring and inspirational (at least by the end) but this is a fairly bleak movie, even when there are good things happening. Washed up people are often depicted in movies as just waiting for the right spark to be lit to go right back to the enthusiastic and well-adjusted people they used to be, but that’s not the case for Paul Newman’s character. He struggles to hold himself together even when he does find something that gives him meaning and he’s not always a nice person either (his treatment of his girlfriend in a scene where he thinks she has betrayed him, for example). The movie is more of a character study than about the case or the courtroom drama, although those aspects are gripping as well. And it’s an outstanding one, down to the bittersweet ending.

The Wolverine (2013)

I’ve grown to like director James Mangold quite a bit (3:10 to Yuma, Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, and especially Logan; let’s just ignore Kate & Leopold though) so I was excited about watching his previous solo Wolverine film. It’s set in the same continuity as the first X-Men movie trilogy and felt much more similar to a traditional superhero movie than Logan but it was still pretty decent.

One of the cool things about The Wolverine is that it’s set almost entirely in Japan. It’s a small-scale story and doesn’t involve the usual tropes about having to save the world. The premise is that Wolverine receives word that Ichirō Yashida, an old acquaintance, is about to die and travels to Japan to meet him. He becomes sucked into the family’s internal politics after Yashida dies and leaves his company to his granddaughter instead of his son. The movie does not stint on action; there are plenty of mutants to go around, as well as ninjas, gangsters, and other assorted mayhem-causers. But there are also satisfying emotional payoffs earned by previous slow character moments. And there’s always something infinitely reassuring about Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine.

Megan Leavey (2017)

I’m a sucker for animals (I will stop and pet any dog or cat I encounter) so I was excited about Megan Leavey, which is based on the true story of combat dog Rex and his human (the eponymous Megan Leavey, a Marine). We see Rex and Megan meet and become an effective team, and eventually when Rex’s bomb-sniffing career comes to an end because of illness, Megan (now a civilian) fights to adopt him so that she can take care of him.

This movie is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the premise – a feel-good story that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside by the end. It does a good job of depicting military life and how Megan fits into it, starting with her enlistment. The pacing is a little off; the time jump from Megan leaving the Marines to Rex’s illness was jarring. It also seemed like the movie was trying too hard to make the story touching; Megan and Rex worked together in 2005-06 and Rex developed his illness in 2012, which means that Rex spent much of his time working with other handlers. I’m sure he still had a great bond with Megan but it seemed a little blown out of proportion.

Playing by Heart (1998)

Playing by Heart focuses on a few different people – an older couple working through a past affair, a couple of women entering new relationships, a man dying of AIDS and his grieving mother, an adulterous wife, a man who seems to be a pathological liar. They seem unrealted at first but there are clues throughout that reveal their connections and their stories converge at the end of the movie.

I used to like movies that told several different stories with a common theme (like Love Actually and Paris, je t’aime) but I realized while watching this movie that my tastes have changed (or maybe the two movies I mentioned are just exceptionally well-made). I can’t pinpoint anything that was particularly bad about the movie but it just didn’t work for me. Some of the dialogue seems like it’s supposed to be poetic but it came off as pretentious instead. None of the characters are given enough time to be fully developed and there wasn’t any nuance in their portrayal. Angelina Jolie has the best role and steals every scene she’s in, but Ryan Phillippe as her romantic interest is bland and tedious to watch. Other great actors like Sean Connery and Gillian Anderson feel wasted.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 10-16, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Friday Night Lights (2004)

I love Explosions in the Sky (Your Hand In Mine is probably my favorite piece of music – close your eyes and just listen to it) and I’ve been wanting to watch this movie purely because it was scored by them. I also enjoy sports movies and movies based on real life events (which director Peter Berg specializes in), so there’s that too.

Friday Night Lights is about the Permian High School football team and their run for the Texas state championship in 1988. The team’s hometown of Odessa, Texas is obsessed with their success, and the players must deal with the pressure of those expectations as well as other problems that come up during the season.

There is a unique atmosphere to this movie (aided by the outstanding score) and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s almost magical; you feel completely immersed in Odessa and invested in the team’s success. There is a good balance between individual players’ stories and a more general focus on the team and the town. The cast does a great job, even Billy Bob Thornton who usually plays characters I detest and Lucas Black who I found supremely annoying in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Other Movies Watched

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Girl, Interrupted is based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir about spending 18 months at a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Mental illness is a hard thing to depict in movies (for example, A Beautiful Mind had to resort to inventing imaginary people that only John Nash saw) but this movie does it well without oversimplification.

Susanna, the main character, is not visibly insane; she just seems withdrawn and melancholy from the outside. Winona Ryder gives an extremely nuanced performance and really brings her to life. The other patients in this movie have compelling stories as well. Angelina Jolie stands out as Lisa, a charming sociopath that the other girls look up to, but Elizabeth Moss’ childlike Polly and Brittany Murphy’s obsessive-compulsive Daisy (among others with various other illnesses) are essential to why the film works so well.

This movie is mainly a coming of age story. Despite the unusual circumstances, Susanna just has to start truly investing in her life to get out of the rut that she is in, which is something most of us can identify with. This is a powerful movie to watch to demystify the concept of mental illness; many people seem to think that there is a wide gulf between themselves and someone who has mental health issues (although that attitude is changing), but in reality it’s a pretty fine line.

Pollyanna (1960)

I remember reading an abridged version of Pollyanna when I was young and found the titular character’s sunniness memorable. I enjoyed Hayley Mills a lot in The Parent Trap and that was a big part of why I was excited about this movie.

Pollyanna is a 12-year-old who has been recently orphaned. She comes to live with her rich Aunt Polly, who is strict and uptight and is not well-liked in her small town. Pollyanna’s relentless optimism clashes with her aunt but wins over almost everyone she meets in her community. Hayley Mills is terrific as Pollyanna, she’s earnest and lovable and you’ll wish you knew her too. The other performances are quite good as well, especially Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly who admirably straddles the fine line between being imperious and sympathetic. The movie has great pacing and even though it was made in 1960 (almost 60 years ago!), it feels modern. If you’re in the mood for a cozy and heartwarming family movie, I recommend it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Star Wars:The Force Awakens but I had high hopes for this sequel since it was directed by Rian Johnson (he made Brick and Looper, both of which I enjoyed) instead of J.J. Abrams (who seems to favor style and action over substance). We bought tickets to the opening showing, which is rare because we hardly ever watch movies in theaters any more (we have better video and audio at home) and when we do, we go to the least crowded showing. I don’t think it was worth it though because I was disappointed yet again.

I’m not sure how good The Last Jedi was independent of the rest of the Star Wars canon because I love the Star Wars universe and I can’t look at the movie from any other perspective. I do know that the things I love about Star Wars are clearly not the same things that the creators of this trilogy think is important. I love the pulpiness, the idealistic characters, the hero’s journey, the worldbuilding, and even the political intrigue. This movie was a little better than The Force Awakens at those aspects, but only the tiniest bit. It doesn’t respect the characters from the previous movies (Mark Hamill agrees with me), it rehashes the same tired tropes from the previous trilogies rather than creating something new (both in terms of plot and worldbuilding), and it often chooses humor over drama or character growth, which strips away any real stakes and makes it impossible to take the characters seriously.

There were some moments where it seemed like the series might go in an original direction (for example, Rey and Kylo’s connection) but they are resolved predictably and that was really frustrating. I did find Poe’s story somewhat interesting, he actually had a clear character growth arc, but it wasn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong, The Last Jedi isn’t a bad movie, it just doesn’t have the things that make the Star Wars universe unique. I hope Gareth Edwards gets to make more Star Wars movies because Rogue One had pretty much everything I wanted.

Hulk (2003)

I was curious to see how Ang Lee would handle a superhero movie because his thoughtful, character focused style didn’t seem like it would be a good match for the genre. Hulk was definitely an interesting movie with some ideas that seemed ahead of their time, but it ultimately didn’t work too well.

This movie tells a pretty standard superhero origin story – after Dr. Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, he starts to transform into a huge green monster under high stress. Unlike other movies of its genre, it doesn’t have a supervillain for the Hulk to fight; just the army concerned (rightfully) about a person who can transform into a destructive monster without conscious control. There’s no good or evil (although there are annoying smarmy guys) and all the characters have fleshed-out motivations that make sense. The focus is on character growth rather than action, which I liked but it didn’t quite mesh with the tone of the action scenes. There were a lot of creatively framed that were clearly meant to evoke the panels of a comic book, but they often didn’t add anything to the story and made the movie seem a little unfocused.

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

This is a pretty standard “inspiring teacher inspires students to think outside the box” movie. Julia Roberts plays a free-spirited art history professor who takes a job at Wellesley (a private women’s liberal arts college) in the 1950s. Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Ginnifer Goodwin play the students featured most prominently in the movie and they’re the usual archetypes that you expect – the one who is initially vehemently opposed to everything the teacher stands for, the one who acts out for attention, the one who can’t choose between tradition and her dream, and so on.

Mona Lisa Smile is not a bad movie but it doesn’t really stand out, even in its genre. It might have made an excellent Sofia Coppola movie, but as it is, it’s forgettable. The characters are not relatable; I’m not exactly sure why. It might be because they’re so privileged, but Dead Poets Society is set at an elite private school and does not suffer from the same problem. It was also hard to understand what made Julia Roberts’ character such an inspiration; she seemed to give up on her ideas pretty easily. And even though there were talented actors in this movie, their performances seem somewhat insipid.

Switch (1991)

Switch seems to have largely been forgotten and I’m not sure where or how I heard of it, but I was intrigued by the premise – Steve Brooks, a sexist man, being reincarnated as a woman and growing as a person as he/she realizes what the life of a woman is like. Plus I love Jimmy Smits in the Star Wars prequels (as Princess Leia’s adoptive father Bail Organa) and The West Wing (as presidential candidate Matt Santos), so I was curious about what he was up to more than a decade before those roles.

Ellen Barkin plays the reincarnated Steve Brooks, and she does a fantastic job walking and talking like a man. I hadn’t ever thought about the subtleties of how men move differently from women until I saw her performance and it seemed so natural. Besides that, though, this is a weird, weird movie. At first it tries to be an over-the-top comedy based on the assumptions that both men and women make about gender roles, which it manages quite well. Then it tries to change its tone to a drama dealing with things like rape and pregnancy, and it falls apart. The characters are repurposed to make the plot go where the writer wanted it to and it’s hard to suspend disbelief any longer.

I think the movie is still worth watching because of Ellen Barkin’s performance, but don’t go into it expecting much else.

Your Name (2016)

We also re-watched Your Name this week but I reviewed it fairly recently, so I’ll just link to my previous review. We watched it again because we received our pre-order with the English dub (we had watched it subtitled last time) and wanted to see what the dub was like. It’s a fantastic movie so any excuse to watch it again is welcome.

The dub was well done and I had no issues with it. I prefer the original Japanese audio, though, probably just because I watched that first.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 3-9, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Paper Moon (1973)

I’d been wanting to watch this movie ever since I read about Tatum O’Neal winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it when she was 10 years old. My husband and I are both fans of the precocious-young-girl-meets-cantankerous-father-figure trope so I knew we’d like it before we watched it.

9-year-old Addie Loggins’ mother has just died has no local relatives. Conman Moses “Moze” Pray (who was involved with Addie’s mother and may be her father) is convinced by her neighbors to drive her to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri. Along the way, Moze discovers that Addie is a natural at conning people and soon they become a successful con-artist team. Paper Moon is not about the cons, though; it’s about seeing the relationship between Moze and Addie evolve.

The two main characters are played by Ryan O’Neal and his real-life daughter Tatum and they have fantastic chemistry. I’m not at all surprised that Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar because her performance is sensational. A lot of young actresses can play precocious and sassy, and she does those things well but she displays so much more range than that – she can be melancholy, determined, devious, frustrated, thoughtful… and all without losing any of her vulnerability. The Depression-era South setting is almost a character in itself, it adds a distinct atmosphere to the film. I can’t think of any criticism; pretty much everything seems like it was done well.

Watch it! And be prepared for your heartstrings to be tugged at by the end.

Other Movies Watched

Boogie Nights (1997)

I had been avoiding Boogie Nights for a while because director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson makes pretty intense movies and I’m not always in the mood for them, even though they are usually excellent. I thought Boogie Nights was pretty well-balanced though. It has intense moments, but it’s not agonizing to watch most of the time like There Will Be Blood or Magnolia.

Well-endowed Eddie Adams, a dishwasher at an L.A. nightclub, is discovered by porn filmmaker Jack Horner and soon finds his place in the porn world as star “Dirk Diggler”. In the first few years he makes friends, pitches successful movie ideas, and generally lives it up. His happy-go-lucky life can’t last forever, though, and as he gets into drugs and the porn industry changes, things start to fall apart.

Boogie Nights seemed like a cross between a traditional biopic of someone with a sketchy occupation (like American Made) and The Basketball Diaries (which is about the journey of a teenager addicted to drugs and also stars Mark Wahlberg). It immerses you right into the world of porn production in the 1970s (the “Golden Age of Porn“) and all its highs and lows. Despite its premise, it does not aim to titillate. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and focuses on all the mundane work that goes into making porn and any sex involved is just work and has nothing to do with pleasure. The characters are just normal people with the same ambitions and desires as us (even if they do work in an industry that seems somewhat alien) and so they’re very relatable. And there are some great actors in the cast bringing the characters to life – Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Alfred Molina, and more.

Oldboy (2003)

I really didn’t know much about this movie going into it except that it was really famous, South Korean, and possibly involved thriller elements. The premise is that businessman Oh Dae-su is imprisoned for fifteen years without knowing where, why, or who is holding him captive. He trains hard during his captivity and when he is finally released, he embarks on a quest to find his daughter and the identity of his captor.

I thought this was going to be a standard action/revenge movie (like John Wick) but it was mostly a twisty psychological thriller. There was certainly action and it was beautifully choreographed – I’ve never seen anything like this single-take side-scroller-esque fight scene, and I’m sure it has been and will continue to be hugely influential to filmmakers. The oppressive ambience of the movie should be just as iconic, though. Dae-su never really leaves the clutches of his captor, and his confusion and anxiety color the movie significantly (sometimes literally, the production design is often eerie). As with most psychological thrillers, if you really break it down, the plot is melodramatic and flawed, but focusing on that would do the movie a disservice because it has its own style and tells a tight story within it. It’s going to leave you disturbed though, so don’t watch it on a day where you’re looking for a purely entertaining movie.

In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges is the debut film of director/writer Martin McDonagh (more recently known for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It’s a black comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out in Bruges, Belgium after a botched job as they wait for word from their boss about what to do next.

I’ve never seen Colin Farrell in a role like this before and was impressed by his range. He plays Ray, the younger hitman, who is a bizarre mix of naive and vulgar and lovable and dumb and brash. He’s got great comic timing. Brendan Gleeson is excellent as his partner Ken, who’s surprisingly sensitive given his job. And Ralph Fiennes is terrific as always as the boss, the ruthless but principled Harry. It’s not all fun and games, though; the story is driven by the morality of its characters and we take that seriously even as we are amused by what’s happening on screen. No one does black comedy like the British and this movie ranks with one of the best.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Peggy Sue Bodell is about to divorce her high school sweetheart, Charlie, who has been unfaithful to her. At her 25-year high school reunion, she faints and is somehow transported back in time to her last year of high school but without losing any of her adult memories. She now has the chance to change her life by breaking up with Charlie before they get married.

Kathleen Turner (who I was introduced to fairly recently in Romancing the Stone) does a great job playing Peggy Sue, both in the past and present. I especially enjoyed her reaction to traveling to the past because it felt so realistic – she’s usually amused or exasperated and has been an adult too long to have any patience for her parents’ rules. Nicolas Cage as Charlie was pretty good too. He managed to be irrepressibly earnest and lovable but still very frustrating. This isn’t a clear-cut “if you got what you wanted, your alternate life would be terrible” story like It’s a Wonderful Life; Peggy Sue’s choices are all pretty attractive and she has fun with them, which made for a more nuanced narrative and an ending which earned its poignancy.

Neerja (2016)

I’ve been aware of Neerja Bhanot’s story for a long time and was pretty excited when I heard about this movie (she was a flight attendant on a hijacked plane and saved many passengers’ lives during the hijacking, but was killed before she could get to safety). I wish there were more Indian biopics or dramas based on real events; it’s one of my favorite movie genres.

The movie follows the standard biopic movie playbook, but it’s well-executed and compelling. It mainly focuses on the last day or so of Neerja’s life, establishing her home life and romantic prospects and also showing the terrorists getting ready to perform the hijacking. The pacing is tight and keeps the tension up all the way through – knowing what happened in real life didn’t make me any less anxious during the movie. The characters are fleshed out, even the terrorists who could have easily been one-dimensional baddies. Flashbacks to Neerja’s first marriage throughout the film remind us of her strength. And despite the subject, the movie does not resort to melodrama at any point, trusting the audience to react appropriately to the terrible events of the movie without having to hammer the point home.

Freaky Friday (1976)

Body swap movies are an old movie trope these days, but it all began with Freaky Friday (according to this list on Wikipedia, anyway). Ellen Andrews (Barbara Harris) and her teenage daughter Annabel (a young Jodie Foster) are constantly at odds. One day, they each wish that they were in the other person’s shoes and to their horror, their wish comes true. To make things worse, Annabel (as Ellen) is roped into cooking a meal for twenty five people even though she can’t cook and Ellen (as Annabel) must play in an important hockey game for her school team even though she has never played hockey.

I really liked this movie. It seemed more earnest than similar family movies that were made later. Annabel and Ellen were fully fleshed out characters rather than stereotypes; Annabel in particular is not a cookie-cutter teenager like we’re seeing in so many modern movies. Both Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris did a great job of not acting their age. There’s a lot of humor (and it’s actually funny), but there are also some touching moments like Annabel seeing her younger brother from a different perspective.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 26-Dec 2, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for a long time, especially because I got married unexpectedly young to someone who grew up on the opposite side of the planet and it seemed like it would be somewhat relatable.

Joey Drayton, the daughter of liberal upper-class couple Matt and Christina Drayton, returns unexpectedly early from a vacation with her new fiancé, John Prentice, who is widowed, significantly older, and black. The Draytons have raised Joey to believe in racial equality, but can’t quite wrap their heads around her decision. And just as they are getting used to the idea, John’s parents arrive for dinner with their own set of expectations.

This movie is entirely dialogue driven and it could easily be a play without having to make too many changes. But the dialogue is fantastic – it’s subtle, earnest, funny, insightful, and cuts right to the bone. Katharine Hepburn (who plays Joey’s mom) delivers one of the best monologues in cinematic history. Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Houghton give marvelous perfomances as well, and they elevate the writing even more. The plot’s urgency is a little contrived and seems too quickly resolved, but those are minor nitpicks. Watch it!

Other Movies Watched

Insomnia (2002)

I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan and this is the last of his movies that I hadn’t seen (I’ve even seen his $6,000 budget black-and-white debut film, Following). I’m not sure what took me so long. I expected it to be excellent, and that’s exactly what it was.

The movie is a remake of the 1993 Norwegian film of the same name (which I have not seen). LAPD detectives Dormer (Al Pacino) and Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are sent to Alaska to assist in a murder investigation in a small town. Their first encounter with the murderer ends in tragedy when Eckhart is shot. Dormer must now solve the murder while dealing with the insomnia caused by the perpetual daylight in the town and his guilt over Eckhart’s death.

Insomnia is a tense and tight psychological thriller with some terrific performances from Al Pacino, Robin Williams (who is terrifying as the killer), and everyone else. Every little detail in the movie – the framing, the pacing, the cinematography – is designed to convey Dormer’s scattered state of mind as his physical condition deteriorates, while preserving the sharp focus and skills that have made him a legendary investigator. And the characters are all realistically nuanced – there is no black and white morality here.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Zack Snyder’s (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman) movies have a unique style to them and it’s been growing on me. I was particularly excited about Sucker Punch since it had a mostly female cast.

Usually my husband and I have pretty similar opinions of movies we watch, but I liked this movie a lot more than he did. I’ve read reviews complaining about the incoherence of the movie and the sexualization of the characters and I’m not going to dispute either of those points (nor my husband’s observation that the fantasy worlds depicted don’t rise above generic CGI). But the movie is incredibly atmospheric – it has a trippy and gothic comic book feel helped by great music. I also found the premise of a young woman being lobotomized against her will reimagining her surroundings and plotting escape compelling.

Sucker Punch is far from a perfect movie, but I can see and appreciate what it was trying to do even if it didn’t fully succeed. And I’d like to watch more original movies, even if they fall a little flat.

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife about eight or nine years ago and I liked the writing but was a little creeped out by the premise and some of the scenes. My taste has evolved though, and I’ve been wanting to read the book again and see what I’d make of it now. I may still get around to that, but as a first step, I sought out the movie version.

Eric Bana plays Henry, a man with a genetic condition that causes him to randomly teleport to the past or future. His romance with his wife Claire (played by Rachel McAdams) is rather unusual as most of their meetings take place out of sequence. Even though he meets her when he’s 20, Claire has known him ever since she was a child. This makes for a relationship with unique difficulties, made worse by the fact that Claire cannot rely on his presence since he may disappear at any moment.

The constant time jumps make this hard story to tell in a linear manner but I found the movie very easy to follow. It reminded me a little bit of About Time (another movie where Rachel McAdams plays a character married to a time traveler) but it explores pretty different themes. I can’t think of anything else all that notable (bad or good) about this movie.

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus is one of the classic kids movies that my husband grew up with and he’s been wanting me to see it for a long time. We started watching it once a long time ago but I wasn’t in the mood for campy fun for some reason (I’m glad I don’t take myself so seriously anymore).

On Halloween, three kids inadvertently resurrect a family of three witches burned in the Salem witch trials and must stop them from stealing the youth of the town’s children by sunrise. The kids are helped by Thackery, a 1600s boy turned into an immortal black cat. All sorts of hijinks ensue (it helps that it’s Halloween and everyone in town is in costumes).

As I mentioned, this movie is ridiculously campy. All three witches chew scenery with aplomb, particularly Bette Midler who plays the oldest sister and leader. There’s a lot of comedy from the sisters’ reaction to how things have changed since their death. Doug Jones (of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Star Trek: Discovery fame) is terrific at playing non-human characters, and he gives zombie Billy Butcherson a lot of character for what he had to work with. The actors playing the kids are fine and the special effects are kind of terrible but in a good way. The script for this movie was meant to originally be a Disney Channel original movie and it shows.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

I knew going into this movie that it would be somewhat dumb but I was interested in the music. It turned out to be a little dumber and crasser than even I thought it would be (such as people puking being used as humor) but it did have fun music so I was satisfied.

Anna Kendrick plays Beca, a freshman at (the fictional) Barden University who reluctantly joins a campus a capella group, the Barden Bellas. Aubrey, the leader of the Bellas, wants to stick to their tried-and-true set list, but Beca (who has a talent for mash-up mixes) pushes them in a more innovative direction. It’s got the usual tropes – a love interest that the protagonist needs to win back, the protagonist finding their place and building self-confidence, etc. It’s a lot like Bring It On, but not as good. Without the music, this would be a terrible movie.

The music is a lot of fun, though. It always amazes me how good a capella music can be, and all the songs featured are fairly well-known. I particularly enjoyed the “riff off” scene where all the a capella groups on campus improvise off of each other’s performances.

Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)

I saw Can’t Buy Me Love on a few “classic 80s teen movie” lists and it’s referenced at the end of one of my favorite teen movies, Easy A. I was disappointed by how terrible it was, though. I don’t think it deserves classic status at all (and Roger Ebert agrees with me, so I’m in good company).

The plot involves geeky outcast Ronald paying Cindy, one of the most popular girls in his school, $1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. This instantly makes him one of the cool kids and he soon stops hanging out with his old (nerdy) friends and embraces the shallow and superficial lifestyle of the popular crowd and drives Cindy (who has fallen in love with who he was when he was genuine) away. Eventually (of course) he realizes that people’s attention is fickle and goes back to being himself.

This isn’t the most original story but teen movies don’t have to be original – part of their charm is their cheesy predictability. But the cheesiness is earned by idealistic characters who are just discovering certain emotions and testing their boundaries. That requires heart and this movie doesn’t have any. Instead, most characters are callous and materialistic, starting with the protagonist. The happy ending felt unearned and I was actually hoping Ronald would end up alone (and not because of his social status!) since that would have the potential for realistic character growth. But I found the movie to be utterly tone-deaf.

Excerpt & Giveaway: “The Night Dahlia” by R.S. Belcher

I’ve been following author R.S. Belcher’s work ever since I read his excellent weird western debut, The Six-Gun Tarot, back in 2013. His newest book, The Night Dahlia, is the second book in the Nightwise urban fantasy series featuring cynical mage Laytham Ballard. It comes out on April 3 and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I’m also excited to be able to share an excerpt of the book in this post!

If you like what you see, be sure to enter the giveaway – the winner gets both books in the series, so you can enter even if you haven’t read the first book. Instructions on how to enter are at the bottom of this post.


Excerpt

TWO

The Voodoo Queen on Milby Street was a dive that tried a little too hard to be a dive. It made the hipster kids feel like they were really slumming without the need for paying gangland tolls and packing pistols. I liked the joint from my last visit to Houston because the music was good and the folks there didn’t skimp on the alcohol in their drinks. I bypassed the voluminous menu of concoctions that came in hollowed-out pineapples and fishbowls with little totem poles of fruit spears and paper umbrellas for buying the lone bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Reserve they had up on the top shelf. The fetching lass that sold it to me had hair dyed white and a tapestry of tattoos covering her slender body.

“You’re kidding,” she said. “That’s like a three-thousand-dollar bottle of twenty-three-year-old whiskey. You know that, right?” I handed her a wad of cash.“

Here’s four K,” I said. “It’s a tip for being the prettiest sight I’ve seen all day, darlin’.” The bartender looked at the money, back to me, and stepped to the back bar to count the bills and make sure they weren’t fake by the light of the enormous fish tank full of brilliantly colored clown fish that adorned the back wall of the bar. She came back with the bourbon like she was cradling the Ark of the Covenant, and a glass tumbler.

“Ice?” she asked.

“Be like pissing in holy water.”

“What’s the special occasion?”

“It’s my birthday,” I said, getting up from the bar.

“Happy birthday!” she said and actually meant it. “Hey, I get off at eight. I’ve never tasted twenty-three-year-old bourbon before.”

“Well, come find me,” I said. “I’ll introduce you to it, but I suspect that whiskey is older than you are.”

She laughed, and I retreated to the shadows of the bar floor.

Funny thing, when you buy a bottle like this, they pretty much let you camp any damn place you please. I went around a velvet rope and sat myself down in a corner booth of a closed section. The only lights in here were the small round fills built into the ceiling, bright light under them, and deep shadow all around. I could still hear the music from the jukebox. It was playing the Swan’s cover of “Can’t Find My Way Home.” I poured a drink and sipped it like the first kiss from an old lover in a long, long time. I had stayed dry for eleven months, Magdalena’s influence on me. She was gone, little Joey was gone. Gone, baby, gone, like the song goes. But Dean-fucking-Corll would go on forever. That little girl was gone, but my evil ass sat right here in air-conditioned comfort, getting good and tight. Cheers. Seeing children’s brains sprayed all over walls seemed as good a reason as any to take a flying leap off the wagon. I drained my glass; it was smooth as Sinatra, worth every penny. I poured myself another one, saw that little girl’s eyes as she slipped away, and toasted the darkness.

“Happy birthday, asshole,” I said.

Half a bottle or so later, a waitress came back to see how I was doing. I told her to bring me a bottle of the cheapest, nastiest tequila they had and a Budweiser in a bottle. I gave her five hundred dollars for her trouble. After that, I had no shortage of customer service.

The bottle of tequila was almost gone, and a forest of empty brown beer bottles covered the table. The afternoon crowd in the bar had mostly been office folks skipping out for a beer at lunchtime, a few college kids with no classes and money to burn, and of course my people, the barflies who didn’t give a fuck about the décor or the crowd as long as there was a seat for your ass and booze to whittle away the hours of your life until the end. There is a certain Zen meditation present in hard-core alcoholism.

The evening crowd was in now. It consisted of more sketchy locals from the Second District, the surrounding neighborhood, and swarms of hipsters, nursing the one PBR they could afford. There was a battle over who was setting the tone for the night on the jukebox, the music jumping from blues, to dance, to country. I did my part for the war effort by tossing in Johnny Cash’s cover of “I See a Darkness” and followed it up with K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut.” Take that, alt-folk scum! I paid the club manager a grand to keep my section closed. I wanted to be in a fishbowl, watching life, seeing how normal assholes spent their Friday night.

I had almost finished off the Pappy Van when the tattooed bartender walked up to my table with a stride like a panther. The black lights made her white hair almost glow. “You didn’t forget about me, did you?” she said over the throbbing music and the traffic jam of voices. She had a glass in her hand. I nodded for her to sit and she did. I poured her a glass, the last of the bottle, leaving a single swallow for myself. She raised the glass, and I raised the bottle.

“Happy birthday,” she said, “and congratulations on another successful fulfillment of your ongoing obligation, Laytham.”

I paused in drinking the last of the bottle and cocked my head at the bartender, who drained her glass and sighed. I looked across the bar and saw the same bartender, same tattoos, same hair, waving bye to the other bartender on duty as she headed for the door, her purse over her shoulder.

“That,” said the bartender sitting across from me, “is what sin tastes like.” I slipped a cigarette between my lips.

“Got a light?” I asked the Devil.

“You had two images prominent in your mind,” the embodiment of all malice said as she lit my cigarette like any good bartender would. “This sweet young thing you visualized rutting with, and that dead little girl back at the school. Since it was your birthday, I chose, sorry for this, the lesser of two evils.”

“What do you want?” I asked. “You are assassinating a very expensive buzz. I did your dirty work, and got you your AWOL scumbag back.”

“You did, Laytham,” it said. “I would have manifested sooner, but I had to wait until your consciousness was altered sufficiently for us to interact. I wanted to congratulate you on heroically saving that poor boy’s life, Laytham. Bravo.”

“Fuck you,” I said, and drained the last of the bourbon. It tasted like ashes.

“Technically, fuck you,” she replied, pouring herself a glass of the last of the oily tequila, “since you were the one who bartered away three years of your life in my service in exchange for those wishes you needed so desperately at the time.” I watched the Devil drink the last of my booze. I think there was a metaphor in there somewhere. “Haven’t we had fun these past few years? Me, breaking up the wearisome monotony of your plodding march toward self-induced oblivion with my little honey-do list of tasks. You, a villain most foul, given chances over and over again to act the hero, like you did today. Tell me, hero, how does it feel to be back on the side of the angels?”

I looked across the table for anything left to drink. There was nothing. I looked up at this thing of purest self-hate, conjured out of my own mind, and said nothing. There was nothing to say. The Devil knows you, because the Devil is you. She went on, taking one of my American Spirits out of the crumpled and almost empty pack. “I wanted to congratulate you,” she said, lighting the cigarette between those full lips, “and let you know I was here to give you a little birthday present of my own. You have worked off about a year’s worth of your debt in the past two. I am forgiving almost all of the remaining time on your account tonight, my dear Laytham.”

“Almost?” I said, leaning across the table, knocking several beer bottles over as I did. I think a few smashed on the floor.

“I’m holding onto one minute,” the Devil said. “That’s all. One measly minute, and of course the ragged chunk of your soul invested in that time will remain in escrow until that minute is paid. Am I not a generous god?”

“You’re what my granny would call a hoodooer,” I slurred. My companion nodded.

“Well said. How is your dear grandmother these days? Don’t hear much from her since you ‘helped’ her all those years ago, eh, hero?”

I roared and launched myself across the table at the son of a bitch. The table tumbled over as I fell. Bottles shattered everywhere. I was on the floor with all the other broken things, trying to get back up. The pretty bartender was gone; I was alone. I had been alone the whole time.

“Okay, big spender, time to call you a cab.” Thick hands lifted me off the floor and to my feet.

“Letgoame,” I said, articulately, and tried to pull away. It didn’t work. The guy holding me was a good six inches taller than me and outweighed me by maybe eighty pounds. He had a hardness behind his eyes that told me the smile fixed on his face was a lie. If I pushed, he would beat the hell out of me. “You have any idea who you’re fuhkin’ with?” I said.

“Look, friend,” the bouncer said, walking me out of the closed section, “Let’s just go outside and talk about this, okay?”

“Fuhyou,” I said and took a swing at him. “I’m fuhkin’ Laythm Ballard, you muther fuhker!” It connected, but there wasn’t anything behind it. I might as well have slapped him with a bar rag. I tried to put together a spell, some kind of spell, death spell? Fire-fall? My concentration was like mercury, and my energies were as scattered as any other broken-down old drunk’s would have been. The bouncer snapped off two quick, tight jabs at me. He wasn’t just a meathead that stood at the door and checked ID; he had training. There were bright lights popping behind my eyes, and I was falling. Then there was movement after some time in the dark. A female voice was near my ear.

“Who did he say he was?”

“Nobody, just an old, rich drunk,” I heard the bouncer telling the girl, “celebrating his birthday a little too hard. He was back there talking to himself for the last half hour.”


Book Blurb

Laytham Ballard once protected humanity as part of the Nightwise, a secret order of modern-day mages dedicating to holding hellish supernatural forces at bay, but that was before a string of sadistic ritual murders shook everything he believed in—and sent him down a much darker path. One that has already cost him most of his soul, as well as everything he once held dear.

Now a powerful faerie mob boss has hired Ballard to find his lost-lost daughter, who went missing several years ago. The long-cold trail leads him across the globe, from the luxurious playgrounds of the rich and famous to the seedy occult underbelly of Los Angeles, where creatures of myth and legend mingle with street gangs and sex clubs, and where Ballard finds his own guilty past waiting for him around every shadowy corner. To find Caern Ankou, he will have to confront old enemies, former friends and allies, and a grisly cold case that has haunted him for years.

But is Caern still alive? And, perhaps more importantly, does she even want to be found?


Giveaway

Tor Books is sponsoring a giveaway of one set of Nightwise and The Night Dahlia! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “Nightwise” and your name and mailing address. This giveaway is open until April 15, 2018 and is open to North American residents only.

Please make sure to include your full mailing address, I cannot consider you for the giveaway without it.

Note on privacy: I will not use your email address or mailing address for any purpose other than this specific giveaway. If you win, your mailing address will be forwarded to the publisher (Tor Books, in this case) so that they can mail you the books, but they will not see your email address.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

My husband and I both love The Fifth Element and we were really excited about Luc Besson making another space opera. We were so excited that we pre-ordered the 4K Blu-ray of the movie sight unseen and watched it the day it arrived. I’ve consistently enjoyed the movies that Luc Besson was involved in writing or directing so I was sure this one would be great and my faith was indeed validated.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a French comic book and it revels in its pulpy science fiction roots. The acting is stylized for sure, but that is a deliberate choice to be campy and it still has an earnest heart. I’d only seen Cara Delevingne in Suicide Squad so I wasn’t expecting much but she was fantastic and her Laureline was my favorite character from the movie. Dane DeHaan was an unusual choice to play Valerian, who is supposed to be a suave and confident agent but I actually really liked that he was chosen instead of some traditionally masculine-looking beefcake.

The real star of the movie is the worldbuilding and production design, though. I read that Luc Besson wrote a 600-page story bible describing the world of the movie and the histories and home worlds of a hundred alien species. That level of care clearly shows in how immersive the movie is. Valerian‘s environments are fantastic, filled with color and detail and wonder, and there are so many of them. Usually movies that involve this level of CGI look fairly generic but Valerian never has that problem. The effects are so good that you almost believe that the places depicted actually exist and the movie was filmed on location. The inhabitants of the world are also designed with the same meticulousness; Rihanna’s shapeshifting character is especially amazing.

One of the major draws of science fiction is the chance to look at a world that’s different from the one we live in, but most sci-fi movies waste that opportunity. Valerian is one of the few that are really original and I wish there were more movies like it. I hope there is a sequel.

Other Movies Watched

Ghost World (2001)

Teenagers Enid and Becky (played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) are about to graduate from high school and experience the real world for the first time (having decided not to go to college). Both Becky and Enid are caught up in the agonizing self-absorption of being a teenager (especially a smart teenager); they are perceptive enough to see the significant flaws in the world around them but they can’t figure out how to engage with that world without taking on the same flaws themselves. They drift apart slowly as Becky is eager to move forward with their plan of moving in together and getting jobs, but Enid is too consumed by her ennui to want to do anything at all.

Ghost World does a great job of portraying the way of thinking of a precocious teenager (mostly Enid) but be warned that is fairly uncomfortable to watch. It’s like American Beauty or The Weather Man or The Edge of Seventeen but not as satisfying. The movie does tell a coming-of-age story, but it is not one of those feel-good ones where unlikely friends push each other to grow into better people and solve their mental issues along the way. It’s depressingly realistic and the character growth mostly involves accepting how pointless and boring life can be, not finding some deeper meaning.

This review does a much better job of articulating what I thought of this movie and why it was so good.

American Made (2017)

Edge of Tomorrow was one of my favorite recent sci-fi films and when I heard that director Doug Liman and star Tom Cruise were going to be reuniting to do a movie based on historical events (another favorite genre of mine), I was thrilled.

American Made is as stylish and well-paced as I hoped it would be. Tom Cruise clearly has fun with his role as real-life CIA informant/drug smuggler Barry Seal, who can’t quite believe (but will take full advantage of) how he’s basically minting money by criminal means with full government approval. The movie’s style reminded me a little bit of The Wolf of Wall Street or Gold, where you’re fascinated by the success of the protagonist even though you find that the societal niche that they fill disgraceful. Domnhnall Gleeson is becoming one of my favorite actors; he has terrific range (see: About Time, Ex Machina, the new Star Wars episodes VIII and IX, Brooklyn) and he plays Seal’s oily CIA handler Monty to perfection. He’s sort of the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the world and Barry seems more like his victim than an agent he’s handling. It only helps us root for Barry when we have Monty around to blame.

This movie has a mostly comedic tone, but it never lets us forget that this is based on a real story and that people’s actions have consequences. It’s a tough balancing act given the events that it covers, but it pulls it off perfectly.

In This Corner of the World (2016)

I’m always excited about Japanese animated movies because they ones I’ve watched have been so consistently great. I think a lot of people still associate animation with stories for children but that does animation a huge disservice. In This Corner of the World follows Suzu, a resident of Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II, and her life before, during, and after the atomic bomb was dropped. Most of the movie takes place before the bomb.

The stories that animated films usually tell are not character dramas, but this movie is entirely focused on its characters. It did a fantastic job of showing Suzu’s complex inner life. It employs techniques that live-action movies can’t pull of as easily; Suzu is a daydreamer and an artist, and she slips in and out of her imagination almost as naturally as breathing. This works well to lighten the movie’s tone without diluting any of the drama and to make Suzu more relatable.

I’m sure this movie will be compared to Grave of the Fireflies often, but I don’t think they’re very much alike other than sharing the common theme of the impact on World War II on Japanese civilians. Grave of the Fireflies is about the extremes that people get pushed to during war, but this movie is about the quiet dignity of people that try to live normal lives despite everything happening around them. Suzu’s life is not particularly exceptional, even with the impact of the bomb. There is laughter and joy and sorrow and tragedy and everything else that is part of life. We’re used to looking at the dropping of the bomb as a huge event but seen from the perspective of a single woman’s story, it is both just another milestone in her life, like getting married (albeit with more lasting consequences). It makes you even more scared of nuclear warfare because realizing how it impacts a single person’s life (that we have come to like and empathize with over the course of the movie) and multiplying that by thousands or millions of real people is terrifying.

Sister Act (1992)

Whoopi Goldberg plays Deloris, a singer who accidentally walks in on her boyfriend (a mobster) executing one of his men. He orders her killed as well but she is able to get away and contact the police. In order to protect her until she can testify, the police place her in a convent where she immediately disrupts the quiet and restrained atmosphere and clashes wills with the Mother Superior.

I was expecting this movie to be a dumb comedy and it was, but a better one than I thought it would be. Yes, the story is predictable and some of the situations are pretty ridiculous, but it’s fun and the humor is actually funny (and not mean-spirited like so many bad comedies end up being). The things that the nuns and Deloris learn from each other make sense and the music that comes out of it is pretty great; I’m not sure the movie would been successful without the music. The characters are all mostly one-dimensional archetypes but they are played well and have heart. Maggie Smith in particular did a fantastic job being lovable underneath her “strict abbess” exterior, she’s not really a villain at all, despite first appearances. As befits a nun, she’s kind to Deloris despite her doubts, and she is easily persuaded by success because she genuinely wants to be the best leader she can be.

The plot that involves the murder and the mobster goons looking for Deloris is a little contrived and boring. Harvey Keitel is absolutely wasted in his role as the mobster/Deloris’s ex-boyfriend and I wish that part of the movie had been a little more engaging.

Becoming Jane (2007)

Becoming Jane is based on the true story of Jane Austen’s own romance and how it (supposedly) influenced her own work. I’m an Austen fan (who isn’t?) and I was aware that she had never married, so I knew going into this movie that (unlike her books) this wouldn’t be a happy story.

I feel like there are so many film/television adaptations of Austen’s work that they are their own genre, and this movie definitely is trying to fit into that genre. It treats Austen just like one of her own heroines, there are misunderstandings and a ball and walks in the country and so on. It’s a decent Austen-esque movie, although it lacks the wit and social commentary/satire of a true Austen story (but then, that’s usually missing from film/television adaptations as well). It echoes Pride and Prejudice most of all, Jane is feisty and her suitor Tom Lefroy is a little too sure of himself but learns better. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy do a great job with the material they are given.

My main complaint is that I think the movie was trying to force Jane and Tom’s story into the mold of an Austen book too much. They are immediately and irrevocably in love, but it feels fake because they give it up at the first sign of trouble (I realize the movie is constrained by historical record here, but it could have done a better job of explaining the stakes). It’s too melodramatic. And the Austen depicted in this movie doesn’t seem like a writer; she’s depicted like one of her own heroines but her temperament was fundamentally different from theirs. Unlike her heroines, Austen was an artist, she chose to tread the uncommon path (especially for a woman) of writing for a living, and she was perceptive enough to write books about a variety of characters that seemed believable while also subtly satirizing the society around them. I couldn’t see any of that in the Austen depicted in this movie.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Apparently this is a classic British movie; I had never heard of it until I was looking up Daniel Day-Lewis and read that his role is this movie first got him noticed. It follows Omar, a young Pakistani-Britsh man trying to figure out what to do with his life. He starts working for his uncle who owns a chain of businesses including a struggling laundromat. Omar volunteers to take on the laundromat and hires his old friend Johnny to help.

My Beautiful Laundrette had a lot going for it and I really wanted to like it. The characters are interesting and have complex relationships with each other; Omar and most of his family are struggling with their identities and torn between competing ideas such as idealism and pragmatism, intellectualism and unabashed capitalism, fitting into British society and keeping in touch with Pakistani traditions. Johnny wants to leave his old life of violence behind as he warms to his role at the laundromat but his actions in the past have hurt Omar and his father and they need to be resolved.

Such promising ingredients should have made an interesting movie but it doesn’t tell a tight story and it meanders all over the place. I felt like I was watching a collection of someone’s home movies without knowing anything about them. The actors act so much like real people that it was hard to tell what they were thinking or feeling because there wasn’t much exposition or expression. The dialogue is very natural but it made me feel like I do when my husband’s friends from high school come over and they talk about people I’ve never met for hours. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make of it all and I didn’t find it compelling. Also there’s this one piece of “music” that sounded just like sloshing and bubbling water (probably the laundry theme) and played at the oddest times. I found it hard to stay engaged whenever that happened.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 12-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Beguiled (2017)

During the American Civil War, a young student at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia finds wounded Union soldier John McBurney and brings him back to the school. Miss Farnsworth’s first thought is to turn him over to Confederate troops but she is persuaded by her students to nurse him back to health first. As he recovers, tension in the school reaches its boiling point as various women start to compete for his attention.

I am an unabashed fan of Sofia Coppola’s work though and I was not disappointed. I read a a few reviews that claimed that it was boring and I can see why people would think that. There is not much overt drama, the movie relies on the subtle interactions between characters and how they shift and change as McBurney’s presence affects the women. It is not Sofia Coppola’s slowest work though (that would be Somewhere) and it is positively action-packed at the end. I haven’t read the book or seen the previous movie adaptation so I don’t know how this film compares to those.

The cast is brilliant – the women at the house include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell plays McBurney. The setting is haunting and its isolation and atmosphere seems to drive the plot as much as any of the characters. The pacing seems slow at first glance but every scene has its purpose and I thought the movie had a tight focus all the way through.

Other Movies Watched

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) is a recently divorced and out-of-work actor who is heartbroken that he doesn’t get to see his kids every day anymore. When his ex-wife mentions that she’s looking for a housekeeper, he disguises himself as a prim old lady and gets the job. He can’t keep it up forever though, and his double life eventually catches up to him.

Mrs. Doubtfire is a classic for a reason, it is a fantastic comedy backed by tons of heart. I don’t think anybody but Robin Williams could have pulled off these role, he switches effortlessly between his two personas and stays extremely sympathetic throughout it all. The other characters have integrity as well and aren’t just played for laughs even when it is easy to do so (such as Pierce Brosnan’s character who plays the ex-wife’s new beau). Despite the ridiculous hijinks, this movie has enough realism to make it seem grounded overall.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!! follows a group of college baseball players over the course of the two days before the semester officially begins. It’s a Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Boyhood) movie and as is often the case, it’s primarily slice of life and doesn’t really have an elaborate narrative. The only thing resembling a plot is that the protagonist, freshman pitcher Jake, settles in at college.

I read that this movie was intended as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused (which takes place on the last day of high school) and that made complete sense to me; it has a very similar feel. As with Linklater’s other movies, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching people act, it feels like documentary footage of real people (albeit ones that are slightly more interesting than average). It is set in 1980 and the characters and the locations actually seem like they’re from a different era unlike most other movies set in the past. I’m not sure what else to say about this movie except that if you like other Linklater movies, it’s everything you hoped it would be. I love this genre and I wish more directors made slice-of-life movies like this.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which he tests on chimpanzees. One of the drugs has the inadvertent effect of greatly increasing the chimpanzee’s intelligence, but before this can be fully explored, Will’s project is shut down and he ends up rescuing a baby chimp who he names Caesar. Caesar is incredibly intelligent but he is still an animal and treated as such by most people. Eventually he gets taken away from his family and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he figures out how to empower himself.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an origin story for how Earth came to become the Planet of the Apes, so I had a rough idea of where the movie was going. I didn’t expect it to have great characters that I was emotionally invested in, though. This isn’t just a good science-fiction movie, it is a good movie. Caesar does not feel like a CGI character; he shows as much depth of feeling as any of the humans (Andy Serkis’s performance is a large part of this, of course) and makes for a compelling protagonist.

Midnight Run (1988)

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter given an assignment to locate Mafia accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who has jumped bail. Finding him is easy, but getting him back to Los Angeles from New York is next to impossible with the Mafia, the FBI and a rival bounty hunter all wanting to get their hands on Mardukas.

I had never heard of this movie until recently and I’m not sure why it’s not very well-known, it’s surprisingly good! The plot is like Planes, Trains & Automobiles except with the addition of a bunch of baddies chasing the main characters (who don’t want to be traveling with each other anyway). It doesn’t take itself too seriously but by the end of the movie, you realize the characters are really memorable and you care about them. Robert De Niro is excellent as usual, and he has terrific chemistry with Charles Grodin. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

Bring It On (2000)

Torrance Shipman can’t wait to start the school year as the new captain of the Toros, her high school’s championship-winning cheerleading squad. Her plans fall apart when she realizes that the previous captain of the squad stole their routines from an inner-city school and they have to start from scratch in order to have any hope of making it to the nationals.

Bring It On sticks to all the usual teen movie stereotypes but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Despite the fluffy content, the characters seem like genuinely nice people and I thought the movie had heart. Kirsten Dunst is one of my favorite actresses and she is great as the protagonist Torrance. Her love interest, Cliff, is played by Jesse Bradford and unlike most love interests in this kind of movie, he actually had a personality. I did wish that the actual cheerleading was a bit more interesting, though; the process of the Toros coming up with their final championship routine is completely glossed over so it was hard to fathom why they couldn’t choreograph those as soon as they realized their current routine would not work.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-poster

Ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar has become the leader of an ape colony hidden in the Muir Woods and humanity has been nearly wiped out by the Simian Flu virus. When a group of human survivors from San Francisco start to encroach on ape territory, at first Caesar is able to establish peace with them. But, there are rogue elements on both sides that hope to provoke a war and destroy the other side for once and for all.

A lot more main characters are apes now and they are just as compelling as the human characters, which is pretty amazing given that they are all CGI and motion capture. Andy Serkis as Caesar steals the show as always. The human characters do a fine job with the material they have but they are clearly not the stars of the show. I was hoping to see Caesar’s human family again, but this franchise seems to be telling the larger story of the downfall of humanity and the rise of the apes.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Mike (River Phoenix) is a narcoleptic street hustler living in Portland. When his narcolepsy ruins his latest assignation with a client, his friend and fellow hustler Scott (Keanu Reeves) takes care of him as he often does. The two of them decide to go on a quest to find Mike’s biological mother, taking them across the country and all the way to Italy.

My Own Private Idaho is poignant and intense, it feels like a modern epic. Scott’s character and arc are based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays and the dialogue involving him is often Shakespearean. Mike is a wholly original character (and the main protagonist of the movie), and his story reminded me a lot of Jon Voight’s character in Midnight Cowboy; they’re both street hustlers with screwed up pasts that they haven’t reconciled themselves with. This weird juxtaposition of Mike and Scott’s stories somehow works very well; River Phoenix’s phenomenal performance is definitely a big part of it.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

This is the third movie in the new Planet of the Apes series, set two years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar’s apes are at war with the human military and are not doing very well. As the apes flee in an attempt to find sanctuary, Caesar finds that he can no longer push aside his anger and sets out on his own quest for vengeance.

I enjoyed this series far more than I anticipated, but War for the Planet of the Apes was my least favorite because, as the title suggests, it’s a war movie and there isn’t a lot of character-based drama or interesting worldbuilding compared to the earlier ones. It is still very good, though. Andy Serkis continues to do an excellent job playing Caesar and holds together the emotional center of the movie admirably. I knew what the ending had to be, but the movie made me feel genuine tension about what was going to happen and how the apes would survive.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Whale Rider (2002)

Twelve year old Māori girl Paikea comes from a long line of chiefs and has the ambition to become chief herself. Her traditional grandfather Koro refuses to entertain the idea, believing that the role is reserved for males only. When Paikea’s father makes it clear that he has no interest in fulfilling his duty to move back home and assume leadership, Koro decides to choose a new heir from one of the boys of his community. Paikea refuses to give up, though, no matter how much humiliation she has to go through.

Whale Rider is a fantastic movie. Keisha Castle-Hughes (until recently the youngest nominee for the Best Actress Oscar) does an incredible job as Paikea, conveying both the wisdom, ability, and confidence of a born leader and the vulnerability of a young girl. She steals every scene she is in. I don’t think I’ve seen such an amazing performance by a child actor since Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

I did not know anything about Māori life or culture and the movie drops you straight into Paikea’s life without much context but I never felt lost. The tone of the movie almost seemed like the telling of an ancient myth, even though it was firmly rooted in reality and most of it is just watching Paikea live her everyday life. It’s definitely a movie I’ll be re-watching multiple times.

Other Movies Watched

Song of the Sea (2014)

Saoirse, a young Irish girl, lives in a lighthouse with her father Conor and older brother Ben, both of whom have been heartbroken since her mother disappeared after giving birth to her. Saoirse is the last of the selkies (mythological women who can transform into seals) but as she comes into her powers, her family worries that she’s not in a safe environment. Eventually her grandmother ends up taking her and Ben to the city to live with her. But the faerie world around them is slowly being destroyed by the witch Macha, and only a selkie can reverse the damage. Ben must put aside his animosity towards Saoirse and help her escape and restore the faeries to their rightful place.

I’d heard great things about this movie (and The Secret of Kells, also by Tomm Moore, the same director, and his studio Cartoon Saloon) for a long time and it absolutely lived up to the hype. The animation is a little basic but has its own interesting style. The story has oodles of heart and emotion, and it avoids being too simplistic or black and white, despite being a children’s story. I will be closely following Cartoon Saloon’s releases and I can’t wait to watch The Secret of Kells.

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States in the 1950s. She’s homesick and bewildered at first, but settles in eventually and even falls in love with a local young man. However,  her life gets complicated when she travels back to Ireland for a visit and she must make some hard choices.

As an immigrant who feels much more at home in the United States than my country of birth, I’m partial to stories about immigrants finding their place in American society. However, this would have been a wonderful movie even if I hadn’t been biased in its favor. I loved the characters, especially Eilis who is restrained and shy in a way we don’t often see in film. Saoirse Ronan conveys so much without saying a word, though (she got an Academy Award nomination for her role). Everything else about the movie is superlative as well; I can’t think of anything specific to highlight because it’s all so good: the acting, the writing, the storytelling, the pacing, the worldbuilding, and yeah, just everything.

About Time (2013)

On his 21st birthday, Tim discovers that he shares a secret family gift of being able to time travel spontaneously. He immediately realizes that he can use this ability to go back in time and fix mistakes that he made, erase embarrassing moments, and do better with women, all of which he proceeds to do copiously . Eventually he realizes that even with a reset button, there are still plenty of problems he cannot solve.

About Time is written and directed by Richard Curtis, whose bread and butter is romance (he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and wrote/directed Love Actually) and this is no exception. It’s cute and heartwarming – Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have excellent chemistry and are generally a pleasure to watch. Bill Nighy is also great as Tim’s easygoing but wise father.

Jane Eyre (2011)

An adaptation of Charlotte Bronté’s 1847 novel of the same name, Jane Eyre follows the eponymous heroine from her early life as a child living with abusive relatives until she finally finds her place in the world.

I haven’t read Jane Eyre or watched any previous adaptations of the book so I can’t comment on how faithfully it adapted the original material. I thought it was a very well-done movie, though. Director Cary Fukunaga (Sin NombreBeasts of No Nation) is skilled at completely pulling you into the world that the characters live in and in his capable hands, the gloomy Gothic atmosphere of the story is almost a character in itself. Mia Wasikowska brings both quietness and drama to her portayal of Jane Eyre, and Michael Fassbender revels in his brooding and intense role of Mr. Rochester. The only reason that I didn’t entirely love this movie is that I don’t find the source material very interesting; it’s a little bit too melodramatic for my taste.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Suave and refined con man Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) has had a comfortable life defrauding wealthy older women in the resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. His luck runs out when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), arrives in Beaumont-sur-Mer intending to pull the same sort of scams. Freddy is an uncouth and loud American (the polar opposite of Lawrence) and they are quickly at odds with each other. When heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) comes to town, they decide to settle their differences with a bet on who can scam her out of $50,000 first, and increasingly bizarre hijinks ensue.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a decent comedy, even for people like me who aren’t the biggest fans of the genre. Steve Martin’s character is extremely obnoxious but he’s treated as such in the movie so that made it bearable. Michael Caine’s understated character is a terrific foil to Steve Martin’s antics; I don’t think I have seen him in a primarily comedic role before but he’s got good comic timing. I wasn’t sure where the movie would go at first but I thought that the ending was perfect.