Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Ghost World (2001)

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

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

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

American Made (2017)

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

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

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

In This Corner of the World (2016)

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

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

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

Sister Act (1992)

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

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

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

Becoming Jane (2007)

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

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

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

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

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

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 12-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Beguiled (2017)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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

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

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

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

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

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

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

Midnight Run (1988)

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

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

Bring It On (2000)

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

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


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

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

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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

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

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Whale Rider (2002)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Song of the Sea (2014)

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

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

Brooklyn (2015)

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

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

About Time (2013)

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

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

Jane Eyre (2011)

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

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

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

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

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

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.