“Skyward” by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward is the first (and so for, only) book in Brandon Sanderson’s newest YA/adult crossover series. I was worried that it wouldn’t be as good as some of his other work because I found his previous YA series (The Reckoners) a little weak, but I pre-ordered it the minute I saw it was available anyway because he’s is one of my favorite authors and even a mediocre book from him is a lot of fun.

The book is set on Detritus, a planet where a human fleet crash-landed a few decades ago but can’t leave because of constant attacks from mysterious aliens. It is told from the first person viewpoint of Spensa, a teenage girl who wants nothing more than to become a fighter pilot and repair the legacy of her father, who was branded a coward after he fled during a pitched space battle.

I’m a big fan of coming of age stories that involve the underdog protagonist going to an exclusive institution and excelling despite the odds. I also enjoy the “dragon rider” trope. Skyward is a mashup of these two sub-genres (albeit with a sentient starfighter instead of a dragon) and I loved every minute of it. All of Brandon Sanderson’s books are cinematic, but this one was even more so because there are so many great depictions of fighter pilots already in movies and TV (my imagination drew especially from Top Gun and Battlestar Galactica). It takes its time in building an immersive world but never takes its foot off the accelerator.

Spensa starts off (like most teenagers) very sure that she knows who she is and what she wants to be, but going from living a relatively safe life to being on the front lines of a war means that she doesn’t get to hold on to her illusions for very long. I really enjoyed seeing her grow and gain the skills to back up her initial bluster. I wish M Bot (her starfighter) had been developed a little more, I think the idea was to make him seem broken and somewhat naive, but he came off mostly just as juvenile. To be fair, he didn’t have a lot of page time; I assume that his character will be explored further in later books.

I was both satisfied in the end and impatient for more because Skyward does a great job of both telling a complete story and opening up a bunch of new questions. I’m glad that the next book (Starsight) is coming out this year, even if I have to wait until fall to read it.

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson (Skyward, #1)
Delacorte Press, | Buy the book

Interview with author Patrick Tomlinson

I got to interview author (and alleged otter trainer) Patrick Tomlinson, whose newest book Gate Crashers was released earlier this week. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Hi Patrick! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.

Could you tell us a little bit about Gate Crashers?

It was written by a small colony of Pacific otters on specialized water-proof typewriters. It took nearly twenty years to train them up on not only the concept of language, but pacing, story structure, plot, and especially writing convincing dialogue that was not focused primarily on floating, cleaning fur, or clams.

What inspired you to write the kind of story that is told in Gate Crashers?

Head trauma.

How does your work as a stand-up comedian impact or influence your writing?

I am scrupulous about keeping them separate, so as not to give myself an unfair advantage over other writer or comedians. There’s a special, experimental implant I use to shut off large portions of my brain responsible for comedy while writing, and visa versa.

What is your writing process like? What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?

My writing process is day-drinking. The easiest part is writing at about three beers in. The hardest part is after ten or so.

If you could go back and edit or re-do a particular scene in something that you’ve already published, is there anything you would change?

I try not to look backwards in my career because that’s where all the previous clone versions of myself were brutally murdered after completing each novel. I am Number 8. The future looks bright, however.

Is there a character that you have created ended up surprising you because of the decisions they made?

Well, there was that time Bryan Benson hacked my 3D printer from inside THE ARK’s docx on my Surface, printed a physical copy of himself, and made it all the way to the NFL Combine before being discovered and melted down again.

What are you most challenged by these days?

Reminding myself that the real world is not in fact a computer simulation deliberately trolling me.

What writer would you wish to hear has always wanted to meet you?

Not whoever keeps killing off my successive clones, I can tell you that.

Have you read anything or watched anything great recently that you’d recommend?

I spend all my time not writing or performing comedy in one of those sensory deprivation tanks. The isolation and ensuing insanity keeps me sharp.

If you could be a member of any fantasy race, which would you choose and why? (Please feel free to describe your weapon of choice as well).

I’d be one of the humans in Star Trek, because they’re not complete dickheads to each other and do their best to cooperate and progress as a species, so clearly a fantasy race. I’d borrow Worf’s Mek’Leth.

If you could have one of your characters team up with someone from another author’s universe, who would it be and why?

Wait, there are… others? You mean I’m not alone? [Single tear]

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The otters have the bomb.

This post is part of the Gate Crashers blog tour. Check out the rest of the tour below!

Monday, June 25 Sci Fi Chick
Tuesday, June 26 Books, Bones & Buffy
Tuesday, June 26 Espresso Coco
Wednesday, June 27 Civilian Reader
Thursday, June 28 Bibliosanctum
Friday, June 29 For Winter Nights

Interview with author R.S. Belcher

I got to interview R.S. Belcher, author of the Golgotha (starting with The Six-Gun Tarot), Nightwise (I posted an excerpt of the second book The Night Dahlia recently), and Brotherhood of the Wheel series. I haven’t read all of his work yet, but I love what I’ve read so far and it was great to have the opportunity to ask him some questions.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

Hi Rod! Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.

Thank you so much for inviting me.

You’re writing three different series right now. Is there anything you get to do or ideas you get to explore in the Nightwise series that you don’t in the Golgotha and Brotherhood of the Wheel books?

Yes. All three series have a “flavor” to how I write them. Nightwise is my NC-17 series. It’s harsher, has rougher language, more adult content, more sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s also less optimistic than Golgotha or Brotherhood is. I do try to push the envelope a bit more in these books. I think of Nightwise as an occult crime novel, or as Fantasy Noir. So, yeah, I focus on and explore those ideas in that series.

How long do you expect the Nightwise series to be? Is each book fairly standalone or is there an overarching arc that the series will follow?

I’ve always kinda hated series where you have to read a half-dozen books to get any enjoyment out of the one in front of you. I work really hard to try to make each book I write, regardless of the series, standalone.

I have gotten more appreciation and respect for the folks who do write long series however with each new book I write in my series. It get’s harder and harder to not spend some time addressing stuff and characters from other books in the series. But my goal is to make my books a cohesive whole while making each story stand by itself.

For Nightwise, at present, I have several more ideas for books, at least three or four more, and an idea for a Nightwise / Brotherhood crossover story. As long as folks keep reading them and enjoying them, and my publisher keeps showing interest in the series, I can write quite a few more, and like I said I’ll try to keep them as standalone as I can.

One of the things I loved about The Six-Gun Tarot was that the world and characters were so immersive and identifiable despite the cacophony of all the ideas that went into the book. How did you pull that off?

I have a very overactive brain, hahahaha! Seriously, I write about the things I discover that interest me. I mash up genres because I have very eclectic taste in, well, everything. It seems unreal and kind of plastic to me to fence yourself into a single genre in any book you write. Life isn’t divided up by genre. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, it’s mythology, horror, and everything else, anything else, you can imagine. I try to make the worlds I build reflect that.

The characters are really important to me, I don’t want to write some hackneyed cliche of a person. I try to feel what they might feel and draw on my life and the lives of people I know to make they seem more true. I tend to end up liking a lot of my characters, even the really messed-up ones. I get to know them and that helps me to make them seem more alive to my readers, I think. I hope anyway.

When you’re writing a new book, do you avoid similar books so that you don’t end up influenced by them, or do you seek them out for inspiration?

I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction and if I get an idea for a book, I dive into research for it. After the fact, I will go back and read stuff that I get compared to and I usually find the comparisons very flattering. Some of the crime and detective writers that I got compared to for The Night Dahlia, for example, blew me away!

I read in an interview that your time working as a private investigator influenced Nightwise (and presumably The Night Dahlia). Could you tell us more about those influences?

I worked as a PI to pay my bills through undergraduate and grad school. I had wanted to get into Forensic Science as a career and a lot of my graduate work was concentrated on that discipline. Being a private investigator, especially in the towns I was in, gave me some insight into police procedure and culture (I worked for a veteran homicide detective and a uniformed police sergeant who were childhood friends and started their agency together) as well as criminal enterprises, and street and gang culture. All of that and a bunch of other work experiences all have found their way into my work. I’ve actually considered recently trying my hand at straight detective fiction and use that time in my life as source material. It might be fun!

What is your writing process like? What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?

I love to research. I hate to edit. I try to give myself a few days or weeks, if I can spare it between projects to clean my brain out a bit and get ready for the next project. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, but I do chapter summaries to keep me focused and on point before I write the chapter.

If you could go back and edit or re-do a particular scene in something that you’ve already published, is there anything you would change?

God, yes! An occupational hazard can be trying to not tinker and tweak a scene, or a whole manuscript to death. At some point you have to just say, “okay, it’s done!” I really, really suck at that.

Is there a character that you have created ended up surprising you because of the decisions they made?

Yes, all the time. I’ve planned on character’s deaths or actions and then had them, in the course of writing the scene find a solution that I didn’t see initially, or tell me “No, I’m not doing that.” It’s amazing, I honestly think it’s a kind of magic and it delights me every time, even if it does sometimes screw up my plot.

What are you most challenged by these days?

Time. I want to write more, get more projects done. I have so many ideas knocking on my skull and I want to see them made flesh, so to speak, but I can only write so quickly, and I never, never want to neglect the people I love. So, I’m trying to learn to work smarter, not harder, and to unplug and not be hermit all the time. It’s harder to do than I would have ever imagined it would be.

What writer would you wish to hear has always wanted to meet you?

Grant Morrison, Robert B. Parker, Roger Zelazny.

If you could be a member of any fantasy race, which would you choose and why? (Please feel free to describe your weapon of choice as well).

I like being a human. Seriously, I usually play humans in tabletop RPG’s. My girlfriend in college ran a very early Vampire RPG and I wanted to play a human. It’s not always easy to do, but I have no clue how to act like an elf, or a dwarf (well…maybe a little), but I can do this human thing, at least as well as anyone else does, I hope. As for a weapon, there are days I wish I had Dalek vision! It’s better for everyone that I don’t.

If you could have Laytham Ballard team up with a fictional character from another author’s universe, who would it be and why?

I’d love to see the interaction between Ballard and Harry Dresden, or maybe Sandman Slim. How about John Hartness’s Bubba the Monster Hunter? I think that would be quite the show. None of these guys work and play well with others.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you so much to all the folks who read my books, recommend them, and write me to offer encouragement. You guys are the best! I want you all to know how much your time, your support, and your kind words mean to me. Thank you!

Movie review: The Handmaiden (2016)

You may have noticed that I haven’t written many “Weekly Movie Reviews” posts lately. My husband and I are still watching a movie every day, but I’ve decided to write longer reviews of particularly memorable movies instead of trying to review every single movie I watch.

I’ve been looking forward to watching The Handmaiden for a bunch of reasons – it was a recommendation from my friend Hareen, it’s won universal acclaim, and I enjoyed director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Plus I’m a sucker for period dramas, especially ones set outside the United States or Britain.

In Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, Sook-hee is on her way to a remote manor to start a new job as the handmaiden (lady’s maid) to heiress Lady Hideko. She seems like the epitome of an enthusiastic and helpful servant, but we soon we find out that her reasons for accepting this new job are not as straightforward as they seem. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot because the way new plot developments are introduced into the narrative is part of what makes this movie so good.

The Haidmaiden is heavily stylized. The setting, the people, the clothes, pretty much everything is beautiful on the outside, but the themes the movie explores are anything but – there’s plenty of greed, seduction, betrayal, perversion, tyranny, and more. Director Park Chan-wook is fantastic at melding arresting visuals with twisty psychological intrigue (although this is only the second movie I’ve seen by him) and this movie improves upon Oldboy with much more compelling characterization and a welcome dose of humor.

Through the first hour or so, I kept noticing little flaws and inconsistencies in how people acted, I thought they were small and forgivable lapses. But then we see the same events from a different perspective and it becomes clear that you were supposed to notice and wonder about them, and I love it when a movie rewards me for being detail oriented.

There are a lot of good things going for this movie, but in my opinion, its success rests squarely on the shoulders of the actresses playing Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Their two characters are opposites in many ways. Sook-hee is cheerful, curious, and wears her heart on her sleeve (despite her deceit). Lady Hideko is quiet, melancholy, and almost never shows her true feelings. They have a complicated relationship but the chemistry between them is undeniable and forms the emotional center of the story.

“Amazing Stories of the Space Age” by Rod Pyle

I was inspired to acquire a bunch of books related to space (which I’ve always had a love for) after my husband and I coincidentally watched both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 in the space of a single week in January. I also bought the books those movies were based on (The Right Stuff and Lost Moon) and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s biography, but this was the book I dived into immediately after it arrived.

Amazing Stories of the Space Age is exactly what it sounds like (well, once you know it’s non-fiction anyway). It describes various space-related plans, projects, and missions devised by space agencies around the world, most of which were never built. Some of them are pretty wacky, some are ideas you really wish had been explored further, and some are just ridiculous given current scientific knowledge. They are all immensely creative and fascinating to read about, though. And there are also some stories about things that have actually happened, such as the history of the Buran, the Soviet Union’s competitor to the U.S. space shuttle.

It is clear that the author has done extensive and meticulous research (including very recently declassified documents) and each chapter is bursting with detail while also being very accessible to a general audience. There are a lot of great illustrations, often from the source material itself and there are also a few pages of pictures and photographs included. The author is obviously enthusiastic about the subject and it’s infectious, it’s easy to get swept up in the narrative (which is not something I usually say about non-fiction).

I think this would be a good book both for people unfamiliar with the history of space exploration (since it offers a breadth of topics that are all engaging and not too long) and space enthusiasts (because it is full of obscure and interesting trivia). I’m looking forward to checking out some of the author’s other books.

Amazing Stories of the Space Age by Rod Pyle
Prometheus Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 7-13, 2018

Favorite Movie of the Week

Soapdish (1991)

I had zero expectations going into this because it looked totally ridiculous. Soap opera actress Montana Moorhead (Cathy Moriarty) is tired of her show’s long-time star Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) stealing her thunder. She joins forces with with the unscrupulous producer of the show (Robert Downey Jr.) and they come up with various schemes to destroy Celeste’s popularity like reintroducing an old boyfriend (Kevin Kline) that she had fired from the show decades ago, and having her accidentally murder an innocent character.

If this sounds like a soap opera to you, that’s exactly the point. Soapdish is itself a soap opera, but has one important thing that soap operas lack – tons of heart. The cast is wonderful. Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg (who plays the head writer of the show and Celeste’s staunch friend) are well-known for their comedic chops, but everyone else also strikes the perfect balance of absurdity and lovableness. Everything is over the top and honestly I’m not sure how it ends up being so charming, but it does. I’d put this right up there with The Princess Bride, Last Action HeroGalaxy Quest (and maybe Maverick) – some of the best affectionate-parody-of-a-genre movies.

Other Movies Watched

Argo (2012)

I’ve enjoyed all of the other movies Ben Affleck has directed (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Live by Night) but they’re all about crime in Boston, so I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a different setting. I’d actually seen Argo years ago, but I didn’t remember much.

Argo is the story of the “Canadian Caper”, the rescue operation to smuggle six American diplomats out of Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 (it is much more of an American caper in the movie, though). Americans were not welcome in the country, so CIA agent Tony Mendez (with the help of some Hollywood contacts) invented a fake science-fiction movie for which he and his team were scouting for locations. And it’s a true story!

I’m not sure how to describe what’s good about this movie except that it’s larger than the sum of its parts. It uses many of the tropes that you’d expect from a movie of its genre – the last-minute roadblocks and the close shaves – but they feel fresh somehow, maybe because of their pacing? The tension is kept high all the way through and it feels deserved and melodrama-free. We don’t have a lot of time to get to know the characters but they feel fully fleshed out anyway. And it’s got some great performances from the cast; Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador particularly made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The King of Comedy (1982)

This is definitely the best movie I watched this week but I refuse to call it my “Favorite Movie” because I never, ever want to see it again (I probably will, though). Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comedian who becomes convinced that talk show host Jerry Langford (played by real-life talk show host and comedian Jerry Lewis) will feature him on his show to jump start his career. When things don’t work out as he planned, he decides to escalate the situation.

I thought that Robert De Niro was disturbing in Taxi Driver (also directed by Martin Scorsese) but he’s even more unsettling in this movie, mainly because of his cheerful self-assurance that he’s doing the right thing even as he’s being a total creep. I think we’ve all met people that give us an uneasy feeling even if we can’t put a name to it; The King of Comedy is told from the point of view of one of those people and it’s just really uncomfortable to watch. Jerry Lewis does a commendable job as his beleaguered character, even if he’s just playing himself. And Scorsese’s direction is brilliant as always. It’s also a pretty funny movie; it’s more of a black comedy than anything else, but it does hold up a mirror to the dark corners of humanity that most people would rather not pay attention to.

Avalon (1990)

Avalon is the third movie in director Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore films” tetralogy following Diner and Tin Men. It follows three generations of the Krichinsky family after they immigrate to the United States in 1914 and assimilate into American life (which is itself changing rapidly because of television and the ubiquity of cars).

This is probably the best movie about the American immigrant experience that I’ve seen (although not my favorite, that’s still Moscow on the Hudson). Unlike the prior Baltimore films, it’s just a drama; there is humor but no comedy. There’s something a little depressing about watching the Krichinskys lose their cultural uniqueness (even if it is of their own volition) but it also helped me understand the origins of current American culture. And it’s not just a commentary on societal changes; it’s a poignant family story as well. The last act of the movie wasn’t what I expected it to be and it left me with all sorts of emotions.

Serpico (1973)

I really need to re-watch Serpico because I was exhausted the day we watched it and I may have nodded off a couple of times during the last half an hour of the movie. Even so, it’s a really good movie. It stars Al Pacino and is directed by Sidney Lumet (who later reunited in the excellent Dog Day Afternoon, also based on a true story) and it’s about real life NYPD officer Frank Serpico, who exposed systemic police corruption and prompted major changes in the way the department was run.

I’m not sure if the biopic genre as we know it now existed back when this movie was made but Serpico does not follow those tropes. It’s quiet, nuanced, and tense, sort of like The French Connection. It seemed very realistic to me; the interactions between Serpico and other officers weren’t dramatic or even explicit about what was going on, even in the most dramatic scenes near the end of the movie. Al Pacino is in his element playing Serpico; he’s good at being intensely idealistic and yet somehow affable. The movie could have easily made his character a morally righteous hero figure, but it does not give into that temptation and makes him a character that we’re compelled by even if he hadn’t done what he did.

The Newton Boys (1998)

The Newton Boys is a historical crime drama about the real life Newton Gang, a notorious outlaw gang that consisted of four brothers. It’s directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, the Before… trilogy, Everybody Wants Some!!) who is one of my favorite directors, but he specializes in realistic slice-of-life movies so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In keeping with Linklater’s strengths, much of this movie consists of conversations between the characters rather than the robberies the gang committed. But it isn’t really a character-focused movie, it’s still trying to be action-packed and fun. so the characters aren’t very interesting. The Newton brothers are played be a stellar cast – Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio, but despite their best efforts, their characters are not that memorable and their personalities all meld together. Even the robbery scenes are boring, probably because the movie can’t decide what tone it wants to take. Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine movie by normal standards, it just doesn’t ever rise above “decent”.

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.