Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 29-Nov 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Mud (2012)

Ellis and Neckbone are two friends growing up on the banks of the Mississppi in Arkansas. One day, they sneak off to visit an island on the river where Neckbone has seen a boat stuck in a tree (a remnant of a past flood). They soon discover that they are not the only ones to have made that discovery and meet fugitive Mud who is hiding out on the island. They befriend him and resolve to try to help him reunite with his girlfriend and start a new life.

I’ve loved every movie written/directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Loving), so the fact that I loved this movie should come as no surprise. Matthew McConaughey is an excellent choice for the title role; his character is gritty and stubbornly optimistic; he’s clearly a dangerous man but you also know he won’t hurt the protagonists. The two child actors (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) are very good as well, as is Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s girlfriend Juniper. The Mississppi is almost a character in itself; Ellis comes comes from a dying tradition of families living on the river and making their living through fishing, and Neckbone’s older brother (and guardian) Galen (Michael Shannon, who is in all of Nichols’ movies) makes his living from oyster-diving as well. The river is omnipresent, offering both adventure and sanctuary.

The movie is fundamentally a coming-of-age story for Ellis but it reminded me of two other stories –  the book Great Expectations, if the story had been more about Pip and Abel Magwitch, and the movie Cop Car, which starts off with two boys seeking adventure but goes in an entirely different direction after the first half an hour or so. It instantly became one of my favorite Nichols movies and I highly recommend it.

Other Movies Watched

Labyrinth (1986)

16-year-old Sarah is left to babysit her baby brother Toby when her father and stepmother go out. Frustrated with not being able to do what she wants, she wishes that the Goblin King (from the book she is reading) would come take him away. She doesn’t expect her wish to actually come true, though. Now she has 13 hours to find her way through a labyrinth and rescue her brother before he gets turned into a goblin forever.

I’m not sure what to say about Labyrinth because well, it’s Labyrinth and it’s such a classic. I’ve seen it before but we recently got the 4K UHD blu-ray so we had to re-watch it. It’s imaginative and original; it’s directed by Jim Henson and as such, features a lot of creative puppet characters. David Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King is probably one of the most unique and iconic movie roles ever. Jennifer Connelly is perfect as Sarah; young enough to be believably whimsical but old enough to be a sort-of-love-interest to Jareth. This movie is definitely quirky but it’s fantastic and I expect to re-watch it many times in the future.

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel is Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman and the film that launched the DC Extended Universe series of films (now including Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League). It is an origin story, showing us Superman’s emergence and battle against his first major foe, fellow Kryptonian General Zod.

I watched Man of Steel a couple of months after it came out and wasn’t that impressed. I’m not sure why; this time around I thought it was very good. Maybe I was still enamored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s comedic tone (which has now been feeling stale and boring for a while)? This movie does take itself much more seriously, but that’s a good thing; it respects its characters and doesn’t cheapen the dramatic moments by trying to insert comedy everywhere.

The cast is great as well – Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s two dads, and Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne are all in it as well. And of course Henry Cavill plays Superman and does a terrific job (although I recently found out that he’s a Wheel of Time and Brandon Sanderson fan so I may be biased). I think having recently seen the original 1978 Superman movie helped me understand the story better; some of the things I didn’t like from the last time I watched Man of Steel seem to be part of the original Superman mythos and therefore unavoidable.

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) doesn’t fit in at school and is ignored at home. When he meets Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the strange new girl at school, they quickly become best friends. Leslie and Jess turn the nearby woods into a whole new fantasy world named Terabithia, a place where they can both thrive as who they are.

I thought that this movie would be a straightforward fantasy adventure movie but it turned out to be more of a drama. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb are both excellent; a drama with children as protagonists is a risky proposition but these actors really make it work. The characters are nuanced and there is no good or evil. Even the school bullies have heart.

Cars 3 (2017)

Lightning McQueen has been one of the top racers in the world for years. His dominance is threatened when newer, fancier, and faster cars start joining the sport (just as he did in Cars). He’s determined to prove that he can be just as good no matter who the competition is. He starts to train at the new state-of-the-art Rust-eze racing center under personal trainer Cruz Ramirez but grows frustrated with the high-tech methods used there.

Thankfully this movie does not follow up at all on the events of Cars 2. There’s absolutely no espionage and very little Mater, and focus of the story shifts back to Lightning’s character growth. I found Lightning having to come to terms with his own limitations and realizing he can’t race forever to be a compelling story. Cruz brings freshness to the story without seeming like Lightning 2.0. And it was great to see Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds play such a pivotal role in the story; he was one of my favorite parts of Cars.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic and has been looking for true love all his life. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new administrative assistant at the greeting card company he works for, he quickly starts to believe that she’s the one. Summer doesn’t quite share his values and their relationship seems doomed from the start but it takes 500 days for Tom to accept that and that’s what this movie is about.

(500) Days of Summer is a painfully honest look at how two people in a relationship can have completely different perspectives on both how they think and feel and what they believe the other person is thinking and feeling. Tom is in love with the idea of love and chooses to interpret Summer’s behavior with that bias, which means he doesn’t really know Summer (and cannot love her for who she is). And worse, he doesn’t even know that that’s what he’s doing. The movie has an outstanding script and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel do a fabulous job at being both frustratingly familiar and sympathetic. I also enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz as Tom’s young sister who is much wiser than him.

Body of Lies (2008)

CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is tasked with hunting down a notorious terrorist in Jordan. He’s instructed by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to work with the Jordanian Intelligence chief Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) as necessary. However, his efforts and working relationship with Hani are often hindered by Hoffman who interferes with local operations without any warning and often with disastrous outcomes.

This movie was a pretty good action-thriller with great performances by the three leads – Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Strong and tight and atmospheric direction by Ridley Scott. The contrast/chemistry between Crowe’s amoral and “results-oriented” character and DiCaprio’s old-fashioned spy character was especially well-done. I found the story a little generic, though, there are a lot of these Middle East action/espionage movies and I didn’t think Body of Lies really distinguished itself from the rest.

“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for the following books by Brandon Sanderson: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer, and Warbreaker.


If you’re a frequent reader, you may have picked up on the fact that Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors and that the Stormlight Archive is my favorite series written by him (see my reviews of The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). So to say that I was eagerly awaiting the release of Oathbringer would be a gross understatement. Tor.com had been releasing preview chapters every few days until the book was released but I managed to stay away from reading them because it would have been slow torture not to be able to read on. I was so happy to finally get my hands on the book.

The world of Roshar changed irrevocably at the end of Words of Radiance – the Everstorm sweeps the world heralding a new Desolation, the Parshendi are transformed into monsters, Radiants publicly reveal themselves, and the lost city of Urithiru is discovered at last. Now that everyone knows that the world may be about to end, they have to figure out what to do about it. Dalinar tries to bring together the nations of Roshar via diplomacy, an initiative that is unlikely to succeed because of his reputation. Shallan tries to hold herself together after the revelations that she comes to terms with and jumps into helping any way she can at Urithiru. Kaladin travels home to warn his family of the Everstorm and scout out the Voidbringers.

Every Stormlight Archive book features the flashbacks of a single character and this is Dalinar’s turn. We finally get a look into how his reputation as the Blackthorn was made, and it’s more horrifying than we can imagine. We see everyone around Dalinar treat him like he’s some kind of ticking time bomb even though he seems perfectly reasonable whenever we see the world through his viewpoint. Well, it turns out that there are legitimate reasons for why people are so wary around him. The longstanding mystery of his visit to the Nightwatcher is solved and ties in beautifully to his character arc. This is his book to shine and he does so magnificently.

There were a few threads at the end of Words of Radiance that I wasn’t really looking forward to picking back up because I was anticipating all sorts of melodrama from them: Shallan’s lack of knowledge of Kaladin’s involvement in her brother Helaran’s death, the brewing Shallan-Adolin-Kaladin love triangle, the murder of Sadeas, among others. I should have had better faith in the author, though. None of these issues are ignored but they get resolved naturally and without compromising the integrity of the characters.

In general I was impressed by the characters in this book. I usually associate Brandon Sanderson with amazing worldbuilding, intricate plotting, and truly cinematic action scenes, but I’ve found his characterization unremarkable. That was not the case with this book. I’ve talked about Dalinar’s arc already but it’s Kaladin and Shallan that I found the most surprising. The first two books have seen them struggle against their personal demons and win, but as Kaladin says to Teft in this book, becoming a Radiant doesn’t change who you are. Kaladin and Shallan are both incredibly broken people that have not yet learned to live with themselves in peace, and they don’t have much to distract them away from that fact anymore. Kaladin continues to grapple with his depression and Shallan is in the process of fracturing her personality into various personas so that she does not have to deal with herself as a complete and complicated person. I don’t think I’ve related to any of Sanderson’s characters before, but I certainly understood exactly how Kaladin and Shallan felt from various points in my life and it made me feel a lot more invested (no pun intended) to them. The other characters all feel more fleshed out as well as well, especially Adolin who just keeps getting better.

It seems like the Cosmere and other planets in the shared universe are taking a bigger role in events; the book was prefaced with an explanation of the Cosmere. Of course we see Nightblood whenever we’re seeing Szeth’s viewpoint but we also run into Vivenna from Warbreaker and she is a major side character! I figured out who she was almost immediately and was thrilled. I was also glad to have read the Lift POV novella Edgedancer beforehand because she has graduated from just showing up in interludes to being part of the main story, and it also helps explain Nale’s behavior towards the rest of the Skybreakers.

There were some genuinely sad and moving moments in the book, which I can’t really talk about since they would spoil things. Not everyone makes it out of the book alive, and some people make it alive that I really, really wish didn’t. The interior art is beautiful, I think there’s more of it than the previous books had. The endpapers have in-world representations of the Heralds that were especially pretty.

I could go on forever about things I loved. This series just keeps getting better and I can’t wait for more.


Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive, #3)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Artemis” by Andy Weir

Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a porter and smuggler living in the Moon’s first and only city, Artemis. She’s been trying to save up for a special purchase but just can’t make money fast enough. When one of her regular clients offers her a massive amount of money for an illegal and dangerous job, she jumps at the chance to take it. Of course it’s illegal and dangerous for a reason and she ends up in deep trouble. She must figure out how to take down the organization gunning for her head while also not getting deported for breaking the law.

I absolutely loved The Martian when I read it so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. On the surface, the two books are fairly different – Artemis is a crime thriller and heist novel. However, they both have the same underpinnings of rigorously detailed science, a somewhat immature sense of humor, and a focus on being fun to read.

There’s been a lot of hype about the protagonist of this book, Jazz, being a Muslim woman; most negative reviews of Artemis mention being disappointed by her portrayal. Her gender and her religious beliefs are not a significant part of her identity, though; they just add a bit of background color. The fact that she is an naturally good welder is more relevant to her identity than her gender and that’s okay (I’m female and Indian but I identify far more with bibliophiles or programmers or people who like to cook than with women or other Indians). Plus she is first and foremost the protagonist of a fun heist novel and she’s got the sense of humor and adventurous spirit to go with it.

I know I mentioned the rigorous science already but I’m going to mention it again because it’s the best part of the book. There is so much detail about how the city functions, how it’s planned and put together, the economy around it, and so on. It really gave me a sense of both how much work humanity will need to do to actually begin expanding to the stars and confidence that it’s a solvable problem in the near-term.

You don’t really think of worldbuilding as something that’s necessary for a near-future story like this, and most authors just handwave the details away. But Andy Weir rivals the best fantasy worldbuilders (like Brandon Sanderson) in figuring out all the background details and casually referencing them. It makes the world feel immersive and alive, like there’s so much more to explore that isn’t relevant to the current story. It’s like a movie that has been shot on location, rather than building a set with the minimal details needed for the particular scene. And the science is not just limited to background details. The physics of how things work on the Moon is integral to the plot, and the author manages to make what’s essentially slow and careful welding riveting.

The weakest part of the book is undoubtedly the dialogue, both inside Jazz’s head and her interactions with other people. Mark Watney’s juvenile humor worked so well in The Martian because we had sympathy for his situation and forgave him his not-so-funny remarks because we didn’t want to him to go crazy in his loneliness. Jazz has a similar sense of humor but it’s much less tolerable because that’s who she is all the time and just comes across as childish. The dialogue suffers from some of the same flaws; although most of the epistolary segments were better. But I wasn’t reading the book for the characters or the prose so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment much.


Artemis by Andy Weir
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The Core” by Peter V. Brett

Spoiler warning: This post may contain spoilers for the first four books of the series.


I’ve been following the Demon Cycle series for a few years now ever since my husband surprised me with the first book when I was going through a reading slump. The Core is the fifth and final book of the series and I was eager to find out how it all wrapped up.

Ahmann Jardir and Arlen Bales are preparing to do the unthinkable: lead an assault on the demons’ home deep underground in an effort to put an end to constant war. They must do it quickly since the demon queen is about to hatch and turn a single hive into many more, but they also need to make sure that their own people don’t tear each other apart in their absence. Meanwhile, the people of Thesa, including Hollow County’s new countess Leesha Paper and Jardir’s wife Inevara are preparing for an all-out attack by the demons.

I thought The Core did a good job of wrapping up the story and providing resolutions to most arcs. It almost felt a little too neat but it was fulfilling so I don’t mind. Unlike the earlier books, there are no flashback sequences so the book is fully devoted to resolving the current conflict. Significant portions of the narrative were told through the viewpoint of some of the newer characters which I thought was refreshing because the main characters are significantly overpowered and don’t have much conflict or growth left. We get to see the war from the points of view of various parts of Thesa through these characters. We even get some perspectives from the demons.

This book isn’t perfect, the pacing seemed a little off. We don’t get to the journey to the Core until hundreds of pages have passed, and what we do get instead with Ahmann and Arlen seems a little too much like fanservice. Abban’s viewpoint is extremely uncomfortable to read and I’ not sure why he was such a big part of this book given his role (or lack thereof) in the book’s events. And there are things about this series that annoyed me from the very beginning and they continued to annoy me – the way that Arlen, Renna, and other Hollow County people’s accent is translated, the Krasian language with its extremely similar sounding words, the occasional crassness, but I knew all that going in so I don’t think it’s fair to complain too much about it.

Even though this book concludes the story satisfactorily, it’s blatantly obvious that there will be a new series (I’m calling it Demon Cycle: The Next Generation in my head) since pretty much every woman is pregnant and we’re introduced to about eight babies towards the end. We’re also reminded that this is only one hive of demons and there are probably more out there. I am looking forward to seeing the world of the books expanded and meeting the new characters.


The Core by Peter V. Brett (Demon Cycle, #5)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book


“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasalisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the young daughter of a country noble. Vasya was born with a destiny; her mother sacrificed her own life so that she could inherit her family’s magical heritage. She can see and communicate with the household and woodland spirits around her. However, when her father marries a new devoutly Christian woman, her arrival puts an end to the traditional offerings to the spirits and their protection weakens just as an ancient evil is breaking free of his bonds.

The Bear and the Nightingale is quiet and slow, focusing on Vasya’s domestic life for the first two-thirds, but it’s never boring. It completely immerses you the atmosphere of the place and time that it’s set in in a way that few other books do. There’s the obvious comparison to Hild by Nicola Griffth, another story that takes real-life historical figures who are dealing with the advent of Christianity pushing out indigenous religious beliefs and tells their story with an incredible amount of detail about their day-to-day life. But the book reminded me most of the movie Whale Rider in tone, the protagonists of both are young women who know who they are and the world around them must eventually give up trying to contain them and instead bow to their convictions. Vasya is a remarkable protagonist, she acts and thinks like a woman of her time but she’s still almost a force of nature.

The other characters in the book are just as rich as Vasya, even the antagonists. You can’t bring yourself to despise Vasya’s hysterical stepmother Anna or the overzealous village priest Father Konstantin despite the awful things they do because their actions are so obviously motivated by their fear and unhappiness with parts of their life that they could not control. Vasya’s family loves her, but they are people of their time and their adherence to tradition stifles Vasya just as effectively as the more antagonistic characters. But they are still characters you grow to love.

I’ve always been captivated by Russian folklore with its guardian spirits that are an inseparable part of daily life. This book perfectly captures the feeling of living in a such a world and it’s hard to tell where the real world begins and what’s magical because it’s all reality to Vasya. It mixes medieval slice-of-life with fairy tale conventions effortlessly. Morozko the winter-king says to Vasya at some point that magic is just choosing to believe that the world is the way you want it to be and I think that conveys the tone of this book rather well. The worldbuilding is only enhanced by the author’s beautiful prose that conjures up vivid imagery from very few words.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of the year. I particularly appreciated that this book tells a satisfying story by itself. If I didn’t already know there was a sequel, I would have assumed it was a standalone. But I’m so glad that there is a sequel and I have an early copy of it because I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.


The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Winternight, #1)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“An Echo of Things to Come” by James Islington

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for the first book in this series, The Shadow of What Was Lost.


An Echo of Things to Come is the second book in James Islington’s Licanius trilogy. I loved the first book of this series when I read it last year so I was impatiently looking forward to this one.

We pick up fairly soon after the events of the previous book; our heroes are settling into their new roles working against the impending invasion. Davian is at Tol Shen where he hopes to gather Augurs to help repair the spells protecting the Boundary, Wirr, the new Northwarden, is fighting an uphill battle to convince a resentful Administration that he can be trusted as their leader. Asha advocates for the failing Boundary to be taken seriously at court, and Caeden uses his portal box to finally get some answers about who he is and what his plan was before wiping his own memory.

All the characters have good arcs in this book, although Caeden’s is the most interesting for the same reason that Memento is such a compelling movie (and an arc in a certain anime that I don’t want to name since it would be a spoiler). The trope of a character making plans that involve them losing all knowledge of the plan but still succeeding has been done before but it’s executed skillfully here. It goes well enough that we appreciate Caeden’s foresight but there are a lot of variables involved and it would have been hard to suspend disbelief if it had been realized perfectly. The slow reveal of his flashbacks gives you just enough to be satisfied to wait until the next one happens but still eagerly anticipating the continuation.

The previous book had many scenes that were reminiscent of the Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan books it’s so clearly inspired by, (much like how The Eye of the World borrowed heavily from Tolkien). This book steps out of their shadow and feels considerably more original while still maintaining the comforting classic fantasy tone that made the last one so good. It’s a slower book than the first, though; it’s clearly setting up plots and characters for the third book. Some subplots dragged on for a little too long, especially Davian’s difficulties with a new Augur at Tol Shen, but it was a well structured book otherwise. And it answered a bunch of open questions about the world and its history which I wasn’t expecting until the last book, so that was great.

Now I get to wait impatiently all over again for the third book, The Light of All That Falls.


An Echo of Things to Come by James Islington (The Licanius Trilogy, #3)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Provenance” by Ann Leckie

I’m a big fan of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series (see my reviews of Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Mercy) and I was ridiculously excited about Provenance, which is a standalone story set in the same universe but focusing on entirely different characters.

Ingray, the daughter of an influential politician on the planet Hwae, has spent her whole life trying to prove to her mother than she is worthy of being named her heir. She comes up with a brilliant but risky plan – breaking notorious thief Pahlad Budrakim out of prison and convincing them to reveal the location of the historically significant items (“vestiges”) they stole, which would make her a hero on Hwae. However, her plans are derailed when an important dignitary from another planet (and her mother’s house-guest) gets murdered and the newly recovered Pahlad is the prime suspect.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ingray; she is one of the least power-hungry characters I’ve encountered but her initial motivation is to be named her mother’s heir. Plus she constantly doubts herself and her emotions overwhelm her at several points (it makes sense because she keeps going from situation to situation where she is out of her element, but most science-fiction books don’t focus on the emotional ramifications of a character being under continuous stress). She does change over the book in a realistic way and comes to terms with who she is so I found her arc ultimately satisfying.

As with Ancillary Justice, you can’t rely on your assumptions about gender conventions; humans on Hwae have a third gender and that’s just part of Ingray’s world. The book throws you straight into Ingray’s life and leaves it up to you to figure out her world and culture from context clues. There isn’t much exposition in the rest of the book either, which took a little bit of getting used to but I appreciated it in the end.

Provenance reminded me more of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit) than Leckie’s previous trilogy. Despite its setting, It’s more of a coming-of-age story and a cozy mystery than a space opera. The characters are mostly all nice people that care about doing their job well, which is refreshing to read about but also lowers stakes and sucks much of the tension out of the story. But Leckie’s core strengths of creating an immersive world and setting up political intrigue with characters you care about make this a great read anyway.


Provenance by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 22-28, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Australia (2008)

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, arrives in Australia to encourage her husband to sell Faraway Downs, their cattle ranch, and return to the U.K. with her. She is escorted to the ranch by boorish stockman Drover (Hugh Jackman) only to find that her husband is murdered in takeover attempt by King Carney, who would enjoy a monopoly on beef if not for Faraway Downs. She becomes determined to finish her husband’s work but she will need the help of Drover as well as the Aboriginal people that work on the ranch to do so.

I absolutely loved Australia. It feels like a sweeping epic, even though it only focuses on a few events; it’s got adventure, war, drama, romance, tragedy, a good sense of humour, heartwarming relationships, reprehensible villains, and tells an enormously satisfying story with it all. I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture and having Aboriginal characters be such a critical part of the movie was both educational and contributed to the epic tone of the movie. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman’s chemistry is undeniable and they’re both very good actors on their own, too. I’m not sure how they found the kid who plays Nullah but he’s the perfect mix of precocious and childlike and you both trust him with adult responsibilities and want to protect him at the same time.

I think the title of this movie is fantastic and conveys a good idea of what the movie aims to do – it’s a paean to Australia – its people, its history, the beautiful landscapes, and a whole lot more. It makes you fall in love with it just as Lady Ashley does. I can see myself wanting to re-watch this movie fairly often and I’m already looking forward to it!

Other Movies Watched

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy is set in a steampunk versions of the 1860s and follows a young British inventor, James Ray Steam, who comes from a family of inventors working mainly on steam-powered technology. His father and grandfather are off in Alaska working on a new prototype of the “steam ball”, which can pressurize steam and store energy more efficiently than any other technology of the era. One day Ray receives a package containing the steam ball from his grandfather with strict instructions to keep it safe and is thrust into adventure trying to do so.

This is director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s next movie after the critically acclaimed Akira and is just as spectacular although the tone and style are quite different. It’s a classic adventure story with one of the best depictions of a steampunk world I’ve seen on film. It does a splendid job of showing the wonder and passion experienced by the main characters and inspiring the audience to feel it too. The story has a lot of action and the characters are mostly predictable but that’s okay because you’re so mesmerized by the other elements on the movie. The animation is beautiful too.

The French steampunk animated film April and the Extraordinary World (which I saw and loved in the beginning of this year) is clearly inspired heavily by Steamboy and you should watch that one too.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Sal Naturale (John Cazale) decide to rob a bank but their plan goes awry and the situation turns into a media circus. The police’s attempts to resolve the situation are complicated by a crowd of onlookers expressing support for the robbers and the hostages’ growing rapport with Sonny.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, including some of the more seemingly outlandish details like Sonny’s motivation for the robbery. It juggles tones admirably; sometimes it seems like a comedy, especially when we (and the characters themselves) realize that Sonny and Sal are in way over their head, other times it’s a subtle farce of how the media covers stories, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness all the way through. Al Pacino practically oozes charisma and wins over the onlookers, the hostages, and the audience alike and that’s a big part of the charm of this movie. Actually, all the actors speak volumes even when they aren’t saying anything.The storytelling is taut, keeping up the tension without heading into thriller territory. It feels surprisingly modern, especially the treatment of Sonny’s sexuality and personal life.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

A couple of days after the events of John Wick, John heads back home to bury his guns and try and figure out what he’s going to do with his life. But his brief return to the criminal world has not passed unnoticed, and an old acquaintance comes knocking on the door to call in a marker. John is forced to take the job but that sucks him in further and he soon finds himself on the run and surrounded by enemies at every turn.

This is one of those rare sequels that is as good as if not better than the original movie. It takes everything interesting about John Wick and expands on it. The worldbuilding continues to be compelling, we see a lot more of the world as John travels to Italy and has to replenish his stocks heavily. I love the characters too – John’s taciturn professionalism is delightful and Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Laurence Fishburne (among others) steal every scene they are in. The action is stylish and fun, which makes sense since these movies are directed by Chad Stahelski, who has had a long career working on stunts (fun fact: he was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix series). The ending is fantastic and establishes a cohensive universe with characters that actually change in response to the events around them, which is something action franchises don’t traditionally do; usually it’s just a repetition of the same formula in each sequel. After watching that ending, I can’t wait for John Wick: Chapter 3 in 2019, especially since the same writer and director as the first two movies are working on them.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Young couple Adam and Barbara Maitland die suddenly in a car crash but continue living in their house as ghosts as they adjust to being dead and all the rules that come with it. They are quite happy until their home is sold and the (living) Deetz family moves in and start to redecorate the house. The Maitlands attempt to scare them away but all the things they do just intrigue the Deetzes more, especially their teenage daughter Lydia. In desperation they turn to Betelgeuse, a “bio-exorcist”, but he’s got his own sinister agenda.

This movie is bananas and I mean that as a compliment. It’s got director Tim Burton’s signature bizarre/creepy aesthetic and surreal atmosphere, but from before it started to feel stale. Michael Keaton chews scenery like a pro as Betelgeuse and makes ample use of his terrific comic timing. The other actors seem like they’re having a blast too, especially (a young and handsome) Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis at the Maitlands and Winona Ryder as the goth-ish Lydia Deetz. There a bunch of memorable scenes that are great even without any context, see this scene at a dinner party given by the Deetzes for instance.

Hollywood just doesn’t make movies that are proudly wacky like this anymore; I wish they did!

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Masseuse Beatriz (Salma Hayek) has just finished a session with Kathy, one of her wealthy clients, but her car won’t start as she’s leaving to go home. Kathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s clients and invites Beatriz to stay for it. Beatriz considers herself a holistic healer living in harmony with the world around her, but her worldview clashes violently with that of the other dinner guests, especially real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Both Beatriz and Doug are not shy about volunteering their opinions, leaving the other guests caught in the crossfire.

Beatriz at Dinner does an excellent job of showing us the world as Beatriz sees it – uncomfortable, missing obvious truths, and somehow filled with pain – without much judgement or agenda. Whether you find Beatriz sympathetic and the guests around her morally reprehensible, or you think she is going off the deep end and taking things too seriously, the film still works for you. There are a thousand different things under the surface of the characters’ conversations and it all feels almost viscerally awkward to watch because it’s so realistic. The ending was not what I expected of this movie at all but I thought it worked perfectly.

Taken (2008)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA and moved to California in order to spend more time with his estranged daughter, Kim. When she leaves for a trip around Europe, he finds it hard to let her go and not be over-protective of her. When she reaches Paris, his worst nightmares come true when she is kidnapped by a gang of human traffickers. He must use his “particular set of skills” acquired during his time in the CIA to get her back.

I was skeptical of Liam Neeson as an action star but finding out that this movie was written by Luc Besson made me a little more interested in watching it (especially since I loved 3 Days to Kill, another movie written by Besson about an older CIA agent reuniting with his daughter in Paris, and I just love Besson in general). I’m not sure why this movie got all the hype it did (and two sequels and a TV show). Maybe because Neeson’s character is a soft-spoken and innocuous seeming guy that can quickly switch to being deadly (this was also when Breaking Bad started airing and Walter White was popular for similar reasons)? In my opinion, Taken is a run-of-the-mill action thriller with no real attention to detail and nothing that stood out as particularly special.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 15-21, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Fall (2006)

In a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, injured stuntman Roy Walker and Alexandria, a five year old girl with a broken arm, strike up a friendship. Roy begins to tell her the story of a band of legendary heroes battling an evil general and her vibrant imagination brings it to life. Although his initial motivation is to entertain Alexandria, he soon realizes that she could steal him the morphine he craves and starts trading pieces of the story for favors.

The Fall is almost impossible to describe, it’s a unique movie and I doubt there will ever be anything else like it. The cinematography is beyond spectacular, the heroes travel from one breathtaking location to another and the movie does not seem to be bound by any real-world rules other than the strength of Alexandria’s imagination. It’s not just the backgrounds either, the character design and the framing are also striking and evocative. The music is arresting, especially the use of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. There is also some good examination on the nature of storytelling, especially with the seamless transition between reality and fantasy, the way Roy’s story evolves in response to real-world events, and the obvious differences between the words that Roy speaks and the images that Alexandria associates them with (such as Roy describing a Native American when he says “Indian” but Alexandria picturing the character as someone from India since she is more familiar with them).

The acting by the two protagonists (Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru) is extraordinary. I’ve never seen a young actor that acted so realistically (she was six!) and I believe large parts of the movie were improvised so that they could allow her to be herself. I read that they even allowed her to believe that Lee Pace was a real quadriplegic so that she would respond naturally to him. Roy’s story is subtly told and all the more poignant for it; his anguish is both easy to sympathize with and unsettling to watch in the context of his relationship with Alexandria.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen The Fall and I have this reaction to it every time. I could keep gushing about it forever. I think it is one of the most visionary and memorable movies I’ve ever seen and am likely to see. If I was asked about the best movie I’d ever seen, this would probably be it because it takes advantage of its format to tell a story that no other medium could tell anywhere near as effectively.

Other Movies Watched

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A young homeless boy living on the streets of Tokyo finds a portal to a magical world of beasts. He is taken in as an apprentice by the coarse and surly warrior Kumatetsu and christened Kyuta by his new master. Kyuta and Kumetetsu squabble constantly but learn from each other and eventually develop a deep bond. But Kyuta never forgets the human world either and his ties to both worlds are tested by various events.

This is the fourth and latest movie (as of now) by award-winning Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda. I’ve loved all his previous work (see reviews of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children) and he’s only getting better with every movie he makes. The Boy and the Beast has drama, comedy, and adventure in just the right proportions, and every bit of it is heartwarming. It doesn’t shy away from putting its characters through real difficulty, though. Like Wolf Children, it’s about being torn between two worlds and giving up something important no matter what choice is made. It is fundamentally a coming of age story for both for Kyuta and Kumetetsu though, and so it’s also about finding your place and being content with it.

Having watched this movie means that I have no more new Hosoda to watch, but he’s making a new movie, Mirai, that’s hopefully coming out in 2018!

Somewhere (2010)

Johnny Marco is an actor that seems to have everything figured out on the surface – he’s getting more famous, he’s winning awards, and he’s rich. He’s overcome by ennui though and can’t bring himself to care about or enjoy anything. When his ex-wife needs to get away for a while, his eleven-year-old daughter comes to stay with him and that experience slowly chips away at his apathy.

If you’ve read my previous movie reviews, you may have noticed that Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and Somewhere only heightens that. It has a distinctive style, lingering for what feels like too long on every shot but perfectly capturing the weight of the character’s boredom and lethargy. Just like Lost in Translation there is some subtle satire of how show business works, especially publicity. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning do an excellent job as the main characters and sell the father-daughter rapport admirably.

It’s hard to describe this movie because not a lot of stuff happens but everything that does seems much more intimate than you’re used to from other movies. I read that it was criticized because it focused on the problems of a successful actor but I actually liked that part; it’s a good reminder that no matter what things look like on the outside, everybody needs to figure out their own meaning and purpose for their life.

John Wick (2014)

John Wick used to be a hitman before he left the criminal world behind to make a fresh start with his wife. She has just died of an illness and he finds himself adrift. When he incidentally crosses paths with some gangsters, they take away what little he has left and he finds purpose again – hunting down and killing them all.

I’d heard a lot of good things about John Wick but I’m always slightly skeptical about Keanu Reeves (I’m not sure why, he’s been in a couple of clunkers but he’s a fine actor). It turned out to live up to the hype, though. If we hadn’t watched so many other good movies this week, it probably would have ended up being my favorite.

John Wick is one of those movies that is pure fun to watch. The character is already legendary by the time we meet him and he doesn’t need an emotional growth arc to make his story engrossing. Just seeing him kicking ass and taking names is mesmerizing. There is none of the cloying sentimentality that other “my wife just got killed” characters often have. And he doesn’t talk unless he’s got something to say and that makes him far less annoying than most characters. The movie reminded me stylistically a little of The Boondock Saints but it’s not as outrageous and much better. One of the other things I really enjoyed was how the infrastructure of the criminal underworld was set up; it made for a compelling world that I wanted to see more of. Luckily, John Wick: Chapter 2 exists and there is a third movie in production.

The Dark Tower (2017)

Eleven-year-old Jake Chambers has been plagued by apocalyptic visions that show him the Dark Tower that keeps the universe safe, the Man in Black that wants to destroy it, and the lone Gunslinger that opposes him, Roland Deschain. Roland is the last of the Gunslingers and he was abandoned his duty in order to seek vengeance upon the Man in Black who has murdered the rest of his compatriots. Walter, the Man in Black, has his own plans – has been hunting children with psychic powers since they are the only ones capable of bringing down the tower. Eventually his attention turns to Jake, who manages to run away into another world where he meets Roland. Together they must figure out how to stop Walter’s plans for good.

This movie tells a simple and familiar story – a young misfit meets a world-weary adult, makes him care about the world again, and together they fight against an undeniably evil villain. I haven’t read the Dark Tower books (yet) but I’m sure that it’s far more complex and the movie is probably not a great adaptation and/or sequel. I thought it was a pretty good, though. It establishes an interesting world without too much exposition, it’s got likeable characters and talented actors (Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, among others), it’s got good pacing, and it tells a cohesive story. It’s not an outstanding movie but it’s not bad, either. And it definitely made me interested in reading the books.

Patriot Games (1992)

This is the second movie based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books. I think it is supposed to be a sequel to The Hunt for Red October but most of the characters are played by different actors, including Harrison Ford taking over the title role. When Jack and his family are visiting London for a conference, he happens to be in the right place at the right time to save a member of the royal family from IRA assassins. One of the terrorists is killed and his brother (Sean Bean) becomes fixated on getting back at Jack no matter what the consequences will be.

I didn’t expect this movie to be as good as The Hunt for Red October but I was still disappointed by it. It’s actually a decent action movie but it was too generic. The appeal of Jack Ryan as a character is that he’s an analyst, not a field agent and he solves problems using his mind. This movie has no room for a character like that because the bad guys keep showing up wherever he is, there isn’t anything he needs to figure out. Plus Alec Baldwin played the character with a sense of thoughtfulness and deep resolve and I can’t think of many other similar movie characters. On the other hand, Harrison Ford’s Jack is indistinguishable from his other action roles. I could see his character becoming president a few years later and kicking Gary Oldman off his plane.

What Happened To Monday (2017)

In the future, fertility rates have rocketed and overpopulation has caused a global crisis. The Child Allocation Bureau strictly enforces a “one child per family” law, taking away any siblings to put into cryosleep. When Karen Settman dies after giving birth to septuplets, her father cannot bring himself to abandon any of his grandchildren and brings them up to make sure only one of them is ever outside the house at any given time so that they can all pose as a single person. This system works well until one of the sisters, Monday, doesn’t come back home as usual and the rest of the sisters have to figure out what happened.

I thought this movie had an intriguing premise but unfortunately it didn’t live up to its potential. Noomi Rapace does a passable job playing all seven sisters but she didn’t make them distinctive enough and I couldn’t tell a lot of the sisters apart (she’s no Tatiana Maslany). The plot has a couple of surprises but many of the twists felt predictable and stale. I wasn’t expecting the movie to be as violent as it was. Some movies can pull that off but it felt gratuitous in this one.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 8-14, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Sound of Music (1965)

I’m not sure how I’d never seen The Sound of Music, I’ve known songs from it ever since I can remember and I know it’s one of best-known classic movies all around the world.

Maria, a young Austrian woman, is a nun in training in a convent in Salzburg. She is excitable and easily distracted though, which are not qualities that nuns usually possess. So the abbess of her convent decides to send her to the Von Trapp family as a governess for a few months to help her decide if she really wants to be a nun. Maria finds seven lovely children who are desperate to get their father’s attention since he has been extremely strict and aloof since their mother died. She brings joy back to the family’s life but fresh difficulties for them arise as Austria is annexed to Nazi Germany.

I find that older movies don’t hold my attention quite as easily as newer ones do, but I didn’t have that problem at all with The Sound of Music, despite it being over fifty years old and about three hours long. The songs are fabulous and I still have a couple stuck in my head. The pacing is perfect, just as you’re starting to wish a conflict in the movie was solved, it does and the movie throws something else at you. The actors are wonderful, adding both humor and drama without either feeling disingenuous. The whole movie has a cozy warmth to it that I can’t quite describe. I know why everyone loves it so much now!

Other Movies Watched

Sin Nombre (2009)

Sin Nombre follows Sayra, a Honduran teenager, and Willy, a young Mexican gangster. Sayra and her family (including her father that she hasn’t seen since she was very young) are on a perilous journey through Mexico to attempt crossing the border into the United States. Casper is growing disillusioned with gang life and is looking for a way out so that he can keep his girlfriend safe. Both their stories eventually intersect on the train that Sayra is traveling on.

This is a exceptional movie. It is not always easy to watch; it is brutally violent (but in realistic ways) and some bad things happen to people, including children. But it also has moments of beauty and hope. First-time writer/director Cary Fukunaga (later famous for True Detective and Beasts of No Nation) is phenomenal, the writing, the pacing, the atmosphere, the acting, and everything else was outstanding. Everything about the movie seems authentic (I read that Fukunaga spent two years researching the movie by spending time with real gangsters and with people looking to move to the United States), especially the people in it. The cast features several non-professional actors so that helps. The story that the movie tells is a huge part of its success, it offers an unrelentingly realistic view of people whose situations are so hopeless that illegal immigration seems like a good option.

Jumanji (1995)

Alan Parrish finds a mysterious board game named Jumanji on a construction site and starts playing a game with his friend Sarah. Jumanji isn’t just a game, though. It can actually affect the real world and they find this out the hard way when Alan vanishes while Sarah flees from a horde of bats. Decades later, siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old house and inadvertently resume Alan and Sarah’s old game and release a grown-up Alan from 26 years of being alone in the jungle. Now the four of them must finish the game and brave all the dangers that entails so that things can return to normal.

Jumanji is a classic for a good reason. It’s often chaotic and cacophonous and sometimes a little scary but it’s got all the ingredients that make a good story – humor, heart, romance, adventure, and a little bit of the unexpected. Also Robin Williams is a genius and movies like this one where he works with kids are perfect for him to show off his unique skills (see also: Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire). Kirsten Dunst has been a great actor since she was a child (she’s even better in 1994’s Interview with a Vampire) and she’s a hoot in pretty much every scene she’s in. I wish they still made wacky movies like this!

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Narcissistic actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) has always outdone her rival, aspiring writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). She’s prettier, more successful at her chosen profession, and she’s even managed to steal Helen’s fiancé, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). That was all in the past, though, and Madeline is aging and being quickly forgotten. When Helen reappears in her life with all the success that Madeline has lost, she decides to one-up her by taking an immortality treatment from the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini). Things don’t quite go quite as well as she planned, though.

This is one of those horror-comedy campy movies that seemed to exist mostly around the late ’80s and early ’90s (like Beetlejuice and The Frighteners) and it is a lot of fun. Meryl Streep steals pretty much every scene she’s in (the very first scene in the movie is a ridiculous musical number). and I never knew that Bruce Willis could play a mousy and unassertive guy as well as he does here. Isabella Rossellini and Goldie Hawn are no slouches either, they were just as good but I haven’t seen as many movies with them so I wasn’t as amused by them. This movie is right in director Robert Zemeckis’s wheelhouse – he thrives with plenty of humor and special effects, and this is no exception. The ending of the movie was just perfect, too.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia! is a musical based entirely on ABBA songs. Sophie has grown up on a colorful Greek island helping her mother Donna run a quaint hotel. She’s never known who her father is, but as she’s planning her wedding, she finds her mother’s old journal in which she writes about her romances with three different men at around the same time. Sophie knows that one of them must be her father so she decides to invite them all to the wedding and figure out which one it is so that he can walk her down the aisle. Hilarity and singing ensues.

My husband and I both grew up listening to the same ABBA CD (Gold: Greatest Hits) and after watching Muriel’s Wedding (which features ABBA heavily) and Rock of Ages, an ABBA musical sounded fantastic to us. The cast is terrific, Meryl Streep plays Donna, Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, the three potential fathers are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, and Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, are all in it too. They all seem like they’re having so much fun hamming it up (especially Christine Baranski) and it’s infectious – I’m pretty sure both Joseph and I were singing through half of it.

How Do You Know (2010)

Professional softball player Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has just been cut from the US national team and she has to figure out what to do with her life now that she is too old to be a successful athlete. To make things even more confusing, she ends up caught in a love triangle between her boyfriend, baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), and corporate executive George (Paul Rudd), who is managing a crisis of his own.

I’ve talked about my love for James L. Brooks before and this movie has a lot of the good things that his other movies do. It’s just not as good, though. I feel like I didn’t get to know any of the characters very well and since it is a character-focused drama, that’s a problem. It also focused too much on the romance aspect, the premise of Lisa needing to figure out her whole life is compelling but other than some vague mentions of graduate school, we only see her decide between the two men in her life. Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson are all great in it and I would not call it a bad movie but it just didn’t meet my expectations.

In & Out (1997)

High school English teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is thrilled when his former student, actor Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins an Academy Award for his performance as a gay soldier. However, he’s not prepared for Cameron’s acceptance speech thanking him for being an inspirational gay man in his life. Howard’s wedding (to a woman) is only a few days away and he has never considered the possibility that he is not attracted to women. His life changes drastically and he starts to reevaluate everything.

This movie seemed like it had good intentions but the execution was sloppy. It vacillated between being a drama about an important issue and a light-hearted comedy where nothing had any consequences. Kevin Kline (as always) does his best with the material he’s given and whenever he’s on screen the movie gets more watchable, but even he can’t save it. It’s not like any of the other actors did a bad job though. The movie just needed to decide what it wanted to be and tell a tighter story.