Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Breach (2007)

I had never heard of Breach before this week, which is a shame because it’s really good. It is based on the real-life story of the capture of Robert Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper), an FBI agent who had been spying for the Russians for decades before he was caught. Hanssen currently holds the dubious record of compromising the most American informants, a few of whom were executed because of it. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, his subordinate that had the task of finding enough evidence to arrest him.

I don’t think enough people talk about Chris Cooper – he’s a fantastic actor, and I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in – I can think of American Beauty, Adaptation., and Great Expectations off the top of my head, but he’s been in a lot of things. He really carries this movie as Hanssen. I’m not quite sure how to judge Ryan Phillippe’s acting – ordinarily I would call it bad, but he’s playing someone in this movie that needs to act all the time and is terrified by it, so maybe it was really good? In any case, this is a great movie, it’s tight and tense and atmospheric, while focusing entirely on the characters. There are many aspects to Hanssen’s story that could have ended up being dramatized in lurid detail, but the movie doesn’t focus on those, and this restraint takes it up a couple of notches.

Other Movies Watched

Unforgiven (1992)

William Munny (Clint Eastwood), an aging outlaw who takes one last job so that he can give his kids a better life. It’s been more than a decade since his days as a killer, though, and he finds that going back to that life isn’t easy mentally or physically. Wikipedia calls this movie a “revisionist Western”, which basically seems to mean that it’s more realistic and doesn’t do the traditional clear-cut good guy vs. bad guy thing, and that’s certainly true. We’re more used to this now – being morally questionable is the norm in a lot of popular media these days (House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc.), but I’m assuming this wasn’t the case in 1992 when this movie came out.

The West depicted in this movie is not one I’d want to live in – it reminded me of a bit of the TV series Deadwood. Munny is melancholy and uncomfortable, nothing like you’d expect from someone with his reputation. But by the end of the movie, you can see why the West birthed so many legends, even if the truth behind them is far more messy than we usually think about. Unforgiven is not the most fun movie to watch, but I still recommend it highly.

A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to India is based on the E.M Forster novel (which I haven’t read) about… well, I’m not sure if it’s about any one thing, but it starts with two British women journeying to India – Mrs. Moore, who is visiting her son Ronny Heaslop, and Miss Quested, who is somewhat interested in marrying him. Miss Quested is interested in seeing the “real India”, but soon discovers that India is far more overwhelming that she bargained for, and this leads to an unfortunate situation which only exacerbates the existing tensions between the Indians and the British. This is a slow movie that seems like it was made in the 60s and not the 80s, but it is still compelling. The acting is remarkable, and it was fascinating to get a look at 1920s India. Both the Indian and British characters are treated with equal complexity. Alec Guinness playing an Indian character was a little weird, but he pulled it off pretty well.

Lincoln (2012)

As the name implies, this movie is about Abraham Lincoln. I was expecting a traditional biopic about his whole life, but the focus is entirely on Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution (the ban on slavery) passed before the end of the Civil War. The cast of this movie is delightful, Daniel Day-Lewis makes a very vibrant Lincoln, but even small parts in the movie are played by excellent actors. Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as lobbyist William Bilbo particularly stood out. I can’t find any flaws with Lincoln, but it did leave me feeling vaguely dissatisfied – maybe because it was set over such a short period of time, or maybe because I didn’t think it helped me understand what made Lincoln himself, it just perpetuated the myth.

Antwone Fisher (2002)

Denzel Washington’s directorial debut about the true story of Antwone Fisher, a young man in the U.S. Navy who works through his past of child abuse and comes to peace with himself. The screenplay is actually written by the real Fisher, who sold the screenplay after he got out of the Navy and worked as a security guard at Sony Pictures. The story is powerful, the actor who plays Fisher (Derek Luke) isn’t someone I remember from other movies, but he does an amazing job. However, the movie itself can be a little bit on-the-nose sometimes, it tries so hard to push feelings on you that it doesn’t give you any room to develop your own feelings.

Chain Reaction (1996)

Chain Reaction stars Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz as members of a research team that have cracked the secret to infinite cheap energy. Their excitement turns to fear when an explosion destroys their research facility and kills their professor, and they are then framed for it. This movie is a dumb action-thriller, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and it’s pretty fun. Keanu Reeves seems less stereotypically himself, and Morgan Freeman is pretty great as the super competent villain that you kind of root for. Even though the movie’s premise is dumb, it gets a lot of the background details right without over-explaining itself, which I found refreshing (for example, Keanu looks like he’s really soldering and machining in scenes where his.)

To Sir, with Love (1967)

This classic “inspiring teacher helps irredeemable kids” story is set in London with Sidney Poitier playing the teacher, Mark Thackeray. After he is unable to secure an engineering job, Thackeray reluctantly finds a job teaching, and discovers that his class is a bunch of delinquent young adults who are one term away from leaving school. After trying many traditional approaches, he decides to treat them like adults and wins their trust, despite racial bias. I thought this movie was too simplistic and sentimental with very little character development, although it’s still entertaining and does succeed in being feel-good.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 26-Mar 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Contact (1997)

Contact is one of my favorite movies of all time, so there’s really no contest for favorite movie of the week. I think this was my third time watching it, and I’m sure I’ll keep rewatching it often for the rest of my life.

The movie is based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, and stars Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, an astronomer who works for SETI and finds evidence of intelligent life through her work. As the name of the movie implies, first contact does happen, but it’s nothing like Star Trek or anything familiar like that, and the contact isn’t really the point. Ellie is convinced that she knows how the universe works and can explain it all with scientific proof, but her belief in aliens is based mostly on faith, a fact that she’s very uncomfortable admitting even to herself.

Contact captures the wonder of discovery in a way no other movie has – both Ellie’s self-discovery and the discovery of aliens, and it’s unique in portraying both as equally important. The characters seem like real people with their own quirks and character flaws, but they’re all likeable too. Ellie is probably one of my favorite movie characters ever, and she’s definitely someone I identify with (which I can’t say about many characters.) I love Matthew McConaughey as preacher Palmer Joss, he has never been more reassuring. I’m too fond of this movie to do anything but gush, so I’ll stop now, but you should watch it.

Other Movies Watched

Haywire (2011)

Haywire is a spy/assassin revenge story from director Steven Soderbergh, sort of like Jason Bourne, but starring mixed martial artist Gina Carano as the main character Mallory Kane. The cast is pretty great – Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas are all in this movie (and Gina Carano’s character still manages to hold her own.) The action is realistic, there are no fast cuts, we see the movements in real-time and it makes the fights actually compelling to watch. The story is a little convoluted and probably the weakest point, but the movie is so tight otherwise that it doesn’t matter very much. It seems like some critics did not like this movie because they thought it was too flat, but I really liked how matter-of-fact it was.

The Founder (2016)

Based on a true story, The Founder is about Ray Kroc, the original head of franchising for McDonald’s (which was owned by the McDonald brothers at the time) who ended up taking over the company. It’s also the origin story of McDonald’s – it’s hard to imagine something so ubiquitous even having an origin (or maybe that’s just me), but it was started up fairly recently. Michael Keaton is great as Kroc, he’s the right mixture of desperate, detail-oriented, and ambitious, and you can’t help but sympathize with him. It’s a good story, too – innovation, growth, an underdog finally getting his chance – and it’s all true. I liked it.

Jackie (2016)

Jackie tells the story of Jackie Kennedy around her husband’s assassination and the couple of weeks after. It’s a pretty uncomfortable movie to watch, after all, it’s the story of a wife dealing with her husband’s death entirely in the public eye, while also having to move out of her house. It’s very good, though. Natalie Portman does an amazing job, she’s barely recognizable as herself, and even her voice is entirely different. The atmosphere of the movie really pulls you in, too. The movie is not told linearly – events jump around all over the place, just like Jackie’s mind is all over the place in her grief.

All The Way (2016)

After watching Jackie, the next movie we watched also started off with JFK’s assassination. All The Way is the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s ascension to the presidency and his fight to get a civil rights bill passed. LBJ seemed like a pretty interesting character, he was known for his profanity and for consulting with advisors on the toilet (with the door open), and Bryan Cranston plays him phenomenally well. Anthony Mackie playing Martin Luther King wasn’t as remarkable, but still did a good job. This movie is poignant and hilarious by turns, and not many movies can pull that off.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

I was highly skeptical of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was convinced it would be terrible, and I ended up being both right and wrong. I was right because this is not a very good movie, as far as movies go. The plot is simplistic, the foreshadowing is really not very subtle, the treatment of Muggles is horrible (I refuse to say “No-Maj”, that word is dumb), and worst of all, the America depicted is nothing like America would be. I was wrong because despite its flaws, this movie is a lot of fun, and I’m pretty excited about watching the next one. Eddie Redmayne especially is great. I hope that the main female character (Tina Goldstein) doesn’t continue being the main female character in the next one, though, I thought she was a bad character and her chemistry with Eddie Redmayne was close to non-existent.

The Tree of Life (2011)

I’ve heard Terence Malick referred to as one of the best filmmakers of all time, but I’d never watched any of his movies so I was looking forward to watching The Tree of Life. I knew it was somewhat experimental, but Koyaanisqatsi had warmed me up to movies without a traditional narrative. I didn’t enjoy this movie, though. It mostly follows a family as they grieve for the loss of their son, exploring both the present day and memories of the son growing up. There are also segues into the origin of the Earth and the evolution of life, which I think is supposed to put the family’s story into a grander perspective, maybe? It didn’t work for me, the narrative of the family seemed more like a collection of vignettes than a cohesive story – I didn’t have enough context to care about the events. There was a story, but I didn’t know why any of the characters were the way they were, and if the events took place over a couple of weeks or a few years. The other scenes involving the birth of life just seemed pretentious. However, the acting was very good, and the filmmaking was well-done (one notable thing was that all the shots seemed like they were from a human perspective, and not from a traditional moviemaking angle), and the movie clearly had a vision for itself – it just wasn’t one that I was interested in.

“The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet has been on my wishlist for a while – I’d heard great things about it, and feel-good character focused science fiction sounded right up my alley. I’ve been reading a lot of review copies lately, and while many of them have been good, I wanted to read something that I’d been looking forward to for a while.

Rosemary Harper is the newest member of the crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship that drills holes in space-time to create new faster-than-light routes between planets. The Wayfarer is unusual in that it has a multispecies crew, and they’re all one big family – something Rosemary never expected to find.

There’s no overarching antagonist in this book, it’s just about the crew of the Wayfarer (humans, aliens, and AI) going on a space roadtrip, learning about themselves and growing as people, and becoming even closer. It’s cozy, and you end up liking everybody by the end. The worldbuilding is great, it’s pretty much everything that makes a science fictional universe fun (to me, at least) – lots of alien species that are actually different from each other, faster than light travel, galactic politics, a run-down spaceship with a ragtag but loving crew (okay, that’s more the characters than the world), and even a galactic Wikipedia-type thing.

I really enjoyed this book, but it still had some obvious flaws. Every crew member in the book gets their own character growth arc, and even though that was satisfying in a lot of ways, it also made the book seem too neat. Not everyone got a happy ending tied up in a bow, but they all changed in important ways, and it all fit the timeline of the journey. It also made the characters seem flat, and too convenient at times, and it made me not invest in them as much. I didn’t end up feeling close to any of them, like I do with the best character-driven books.

Despite its problems, this book was good enough that I’ve pre-ordered the next book, A Closed And Common Orbit. It arrives in about ten days and I’m pretty excited to read it.


The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Wayfarers, #1)
Harper Voyager, 2016 | Buy the book


“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

I was looking for a good book to buy for one of my friends who likes reading about history and medicine, and I remembered The Ghost Map, a book that many of the people I follow on LibraryThing read and loved. One of my pet peeves is buying someone a book that I don’t own myself, so I also bought myself a copy and read it when I was looking for a break from speculative fiction.

The Ghost Map is about the terrible Broad Street cholera epidemic in London in 1854. The epidemic claimed over six hundred lives, but also sparked an investigation that led to the foundations of the science of epidemiology and underscored the importance of proper sanitation and public health. We follow two investigators – local doctor John Snow, who had been looking for more data on cholera for a long time, and young assistant curate Henry Whitehead, who was increasingly concerned about his parishioners being decimated. Whitehead’s local knowledge and Snow’s methodical nature and medical skills combined helped prove that cholera was spread via contaminated water, rather than the ineffable “miasma” that was the prevailing theory of the time.

This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.

The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness.


The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2005 | Buy the book


Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Impoverished rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) has done everything in his power to keep his land from being sold to the new railroad coming through town, but he’s deep in debt to a local businessman and out of options. When he’s offered a job guarding charismatic bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) until he can be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison, he jumps at the chance, despite the bloodthirsty gang that has vowed to rescue their leader.

This is a really good movie, and I’m not sure why. When you look at individual characters’ actions, they don’t always make sense, but it doesn’t even matter what the plot is. This movie is designed so that pretty much everything you want to happen in the movie actually happens, at exactly the right time, and it’s a perfect emotional rollercoaster. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are amazing, Russell Crowe especially strikes the perfect balance of menace and thoughtfulness. The rest of the cast was terrific too – Alan Tudyk as the adorable town doctor, Logan Lerman as the rebellious oldest Evans son, Dallas Roberts as the company man who is made of stronger stuff than you’d think, Ben Foster (foreshadowing his Hell or High Water role) as the zealous bandit leader… pretty much everyone.

This movie is like The Shawshank Redemption (although nothing is as good as that movie) in that it’s a simple story, but satisfyingly told. Highly recommended.

Other Movies Watched

Moana (2016)

Moana longs for nothing else other than sailing on the open ocean but she has responsibilities as the daughter of the chief, and her people never leave the safe waters around their island. Despite her father’s disapproval, she gets her wish when the ocean picks her to restore the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of life, and stop the darkness that has been spreading for a thousand years. Moana is a Disney musical, and so it’s got the formula down, but who cares if it’s predictable? It’s fun and heartwarming, the songs are great, and it turns out that the Rock (who plays the demigod Maui) has a really good singing voice.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Troubled Vietnam vet and cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) has just lost his wife to a car accident, and the police department is worried about his mental health. They pair him up with veteran cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who is on the tail of a drug smuggling operation. In true buddy cop style, they don’t get along at first, but soon learn to appreciate each other’s different styles. I thought this would be just be a dumb action movie, but it’s got surprisingly interesting characters, they don’t seem larger than life like most action movie characters do.

Passengers (2016)

I was really looking forward to this movie – it’s set entirely on a spaceship (which looked gorgeous from the trailers), and it stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence! Unfortunately it was a little bit of a let down, mainly because it couldn’t seem to decide what tone it wanted to take. Chris Pratt plays a passenger who accidentally gets woken up from cryostasis 90 years early on a journey to colonize a new world, and wakes up a fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep him company. The movie can’t decide whether Chris Pratt’s character is creepy or just a great guy who got lonely – it wants all the drama of a huge moral dilemma, but also wants us to root for a simple romance. Plus, it absolutely wasted the sci-fi elements, the design and concept of the spaceship and the colonies was great, I would have loved to learn more.

Lion (2016)

Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who was separated from his family when he accidentally boarded a train that took him thousands of miles away. After he grows up (adopted by an Australian family), he manages to track his birth family using Google Earth and scattered memories. It’s a pretty amazing story, and the first half of the movie (featuring young Saroo’s story) is incredible. Once Saroo grows up, though, it becomes a little tedious – there isn’t actually much drama to Saroo’s story, so the movie tries to create it by having Saroo obsess and mope over and over again. I’d still recommend it based just on the first half, though.

Demolition Man (1993)

When psychopathic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) gets resurrected from cryostasis in a future that has embraced peace and doesn’t have the skills to deal with his crimes, the San Angeles PD has no choice but to also resurrect his old nemesis, cop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) to catch him. This is a ridiculous science fiction action movie that makes no sense, but it’s a lot of fun – it’s got a wacky fascist-masquerading-as-benign future world, lots of explosions, both Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone having a blast hamming it up, an amazingly earnest Sandra Bullock, a delightfully evil corporate overload – what more do you need?

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Lethal Weapon 2 is a prime example of why sequels have a such a bad reputation. It gets rid of everything unique about the first movie and turns the characters into dumb comedic action stereotypes. I mean it’s not bad on its own – Joe Pesci is an especially great addition to the cast as the squirrely but excitable protected witness Leo Getz – but when compared to the first movie, it’s a definite step down. But if you’re just looking for campy and fun action, you can’t go wrong. I did read that the writer of the first movie, Shane Black, wrote a treatment for this movie that continued Riggs’ story arc and was pretty dark, but the studio didn’t want such a serious movie. I would’ve loved to see that version, though.

“The Sudden Appearance of Hope” by Claire North

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Sudden Appearance of Hope. Despite falling under the broad genre of “speculative fiction”, it’s different in many ways from my usual fare.

The protagonist of the book is Hope, a woman who cannot be remembered for more than 60 seconds unless you’re in an active conversation with her. She ends up using her “ability” to become a thief and a con-artist, but longs for normal human relationships. She’s doing pretty good with the strict rules she sets for herself, but she makes a mistake when a woman she enjoys spending time with commits suicide. She steals from people she would ordinarily have avoided, and that has serious consequences – she can’t just count on her abilities to hide her anymore, she has to figure out who she wants to be.

I don’t think I did justice to the book with that summary, it’s also a story about the logical extreme of our culture of conformity and oversharing – the app Perfection which ingests every piece of data about your life and gives you rewards if you fit its definition of what a human should be. Hope is one of the players in this story, and it doesn’t matter that she’s forgettable, except to her own personal arc.

I’m usually skeptical of media that features software or hacking as a major plot point; I’m a software engineer, and books and movies get it so wrong usually. I couldn’t really find fault with The Sudden Appearance of Hope, though – the description of connecting to the “darknet” via Tor, the details of how an app like Perfection would work, etc. It’s not perfect, but it was good enough that it didn’t draw me out of the story because it seemed implausible. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge compliment.

Anyway, I really liked this book. Hope is unique, of course – she is always alone in the most awful of ways, and and pulls you into her worldview with surprising ease. The supporting characters are compelling almost because of the nature of the story, they have to be idealistic enough find ways to interact with Hope in a meaningful way. The book explores lots of interesting ideas about the nature of identity, the dangers (and benefits) of surveillance, and humanity’s inexorable attraction to conformity, while managing to tell both a tight personal story about Hope, and a broader one about the effect of technology on the world.


The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
Redhook, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 12-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge is based on the real-life story of Desmond Doss, an American combat medic who served in World War II and was the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. He single-handedly saved around 75 soldiers in the aftermath of a battle when almost everyone else had retreated.

Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, and he’s fantastic. He comes off as naive and almost cute, but he’s also stubborn enough about his convictions to put up with constant harassment during boot camp and stand his ground. Everyone else in the movie does a great job too – it was hard for me to buy Hugo Weaving (Elrond in The Lord of the Rings movies) as a potbellied drunk, but he was good enough that I suspended my disbelief quickly. I’m a fan of Mel Gibson’s direction from the movie Apocalpyto, and from what I see here, I need to keep watching his movies. The confusion and terror of war is portrayed very well, it ranks up there with Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.

I thought Doss’ story was amazing; I didn’t know the army allowed conscientious objectors to serve in combat, and that there were actually some decorated for bravery! After the movie, I read about Doss, and it turns out that he’s even more heroic in real life  – not all his exploits and injuries were depicted in the movie.

Other Movies Watched

Hell or High Water (2016)

This movie follows two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who rob a series of Texas banks in order to save their family ranch. Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger that is on their case, and he’s outstanding in the role. I thought the style of this movie was interesting, Wikipedia calls it a “neo-western”, which I didn’t realize was a genre. It does seem a lot like a Western, but it’s set in modern Texas. Hell or High Water isn’t exactly a happy movie, but it’s thoughtful, the characters are well-developed, and it strikes balanced notes of hope and realism at the end. Highly recommended.

Queen of Katwe (2016)

I’m a big fan of Mira Nair, and I was pretty excited to see her latest movie (based on a true story) about Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the slums of Katwe in Uganda who becomes a chess profigy. I love underdog stories, and chess is a particularly great example of it since you just need your mind to play well. Nair throws you into the sights and sounds of Katwe without much explanation, and it works really well. The actors seem like they’re mostly unknown, although we do have Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mom and David Oyelowo as Phiona’s chess coach. This is simply a good movie – all the details are right, we get a vivid sense of where Phiona comes from and her story is truly inspiring.

Doctor Strange (2016)

I think this was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in a few years that we didn’t see in theaters – we’re getting superhero fatigue. Doctor Strange is actually pretty good, though. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the arrogant genius (of course) neurosurgeon Stephen Strange who loses function in his hands after an accident. Seeking the use of his hands again, he ends up being the student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him to be a powerful sorcerer. As he learns the use of his new powers, he has to stop being selfish and save the Earth from the Ancient One’s misguided former student (Mads Mikkelsen, who’s great, but absolutely wasted as a generic villain.) Cumberbatch is great is this role, he tempers Strange’s hubris with genuine sadness. For once, the end of the movie didn’t involve wanton property damage either.

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Wyatt Earp came out the year after Tombstone, which both Joseph and I really enjoyed, and I was skeptical of this movie since I thought it would cover the same story. Fortunately, it’s a pretty different movie – it’s more of a traditional biopic of Wyatt Earp and the events in Tombstone are just a part of the narrative. Kevin Costner’s Earp is a pretty flawed and relatable character, but you can see where the myths surrounding him came from. Dennis Quaid is almost unrecognizable (and very good) as Earp’s equally legendary friend, Doc Holliday. The movie seemed a little unfocused at times, but it was still pretty good.

 Allied (2016)

This movie stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as two Allied spies that fall in love on a mission and try to build a life together. I almost loved this movie, it’s gorgeous, and the acting is wonderful. Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie, the characters don’t seem consistent with their later actions (I can’t go into details because it would spoil the movie), and some parts of the movie were quite melodramatic. I also noticed a couple of major plotholes that pulled me out of the story a bit. The first act of the movie with the mission in Casablanca was really immersive, though.

Dragonfly (2002)

Dragonfly is a weird movie starring Kevin Costner as a doctor who believes his recently deceased wife is talking to him via patients with near-death experiences. I wasn’t really looking forward to watching this movie, but we’re slowly making our way through Kevin Costner’s entire catalogue, and we had to get to this at some point. I’m not a big fan of horror, and this movie definitely has horror tones, although it tries to imply that the things that are happening are also magical and desirable at the same time. Only M. Night Shyamalan can pull off the creepy/hopeful aesthetic with any degree of success, this movie just seemed like a bad knockoff. Watch The Sixth Sense or Signs instead.

“Discount Armageddon” by Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon is the first book of the InCryptid urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire. We follow Verity Price, a member of a family that has dedicated their lives to protecting the cryptid (monster) community (which also includes hunting the cryptids that become a threat to humans.) Verity has moved to New York City to try and decide between her two burgeoning careers – ballroom dance and cryptozoology, but her life becomes more complicated when a member of the Covenant (a rival society that takes a more hardline attitude towards cryptids) arrives in town, and then cryptids start disappearing mysteriously.

Urban fantasy is not my favorite genre – perhaps because cities and sexy clothes/hairdos and nightclubs and so on don’t really appeal to me, even as wish fulfillment. I did enjoy Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series, but that was more small-town fantasy than urban fantasy. But I’ve heard great things about Seanan McGuire, so I wanted to give this series a go.

As far as urban fantasy goes, Discount Armageddon was pretty good. Verity is a fun protagonist, she’s your typical sexy badass girl who carries a lot of weapons and knows how to use them while looking fabulous all the time (although she does get covered in blood and sewer-juice fairly often.) The central adventure was okay, although I felt like it was a little anticlimactic because the villains were all faceless and we didn’t get to know their motivations very well.

I really didn’t understand Verity’s relationship with her love interest, Dominic, who is supposed to be this cultish killer, but instead ends up being hot, interested in her, and willing to sacrifice all his beliefs that he’s grown up with pretty much instantly. Also, I found the character of Sarah somewhat inconsistent, she’s constantly described as an awkward mathematician, but nothing she said seemed that awkward or nerdy or mathematical to me (other than the one reference to Babylon 5, which I appreciated.) I mean, I know urban fantasy is supposed to be dumb fun, so maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Speaking of reading too much into things, I had so many questions about the world that were not satisfactorily answered. Why are certain animals classified as cryptids but others are just normal animals? – sapience doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. How do cryptids keep themselves secret if there are so many different species of them? Why doesn’t the Covenant have a permanent presence in the U.S.? Why is this book called Discount Armageddon, other than it being a cool name? And so on…

It’s a good thing that I have questions because it means that I’m into the series enough to think about it. I’ll probably read the next book in the series fairly soon.


Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire (InCryptid, #1)
DAW Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and won the Best Picture Oscar the year it came out. It is about a family dealing with the loss of their older son in a boating accident. Conrad, the younger son, has just returned from a four month stay at a psychiatric hospital, and his parents have very different reactions to the situation.

I thought this was a fantastic movie. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore picked up major awards for their performances as Conrad and his mother Beth, and the other actors are great too – Donald Sutherland (playing someone who is not evil and/or crazy, for a change) is lovable as Conrad’s father Calvin, and Judd Hirsch plays the curmudgeonly psychiatrist to perfection. The story is subtly told, and the characters react to things like real people. That does mean they’re not always nice – Conrad’s mother Beth, for example, is selfish, emotionally distant, and overly concerned with appearances.

Ordinary People is fundamentally a happy movie – we see characters come to terms with themselves and the world around them. Unlike other movies (I’m looking at you, Captain Fantastic), that doesn’t mean a tidy ending where everything is tied up in a bow. and instead it takes the characters’ behavior to its logical conclusion. This really sealed the deal for me and catapulted the movie to one of my favorites.

Other Movies Watched

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Billy Lynn is an Iraqi war hero who is being paraded around the country with the rest of his squad for publicity before being redeployed. At the final stop on his tour, a halftime show for a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game, he contemplates his life and choices. I was pretty excited to see this movie because it’s directed by Ang Lee, who is amazing, and Chris Tucker is in it, and he’s rarely in movies these days.

I thought this movie was really good. The way the shots are framed can get uncomfortable at times, and it’s shot at 120 frames per second (movies are usually shot at 24 fps, the Hobbit movies were notable for being shot at 48 fps), which adds to the sense of discomfort. It was a good choice, though, because Billy is uncomfortable and it makes the audience feel more connected to his story. The acting and casting was great – newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy, Vin Diesel as Billy’s staff sergeant that he gets a medal for trying to protect, Garrett Hedlund as the wry leader of Billy’s squad, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, pretty much everyone. The movie was also constantly self-referential, which I enjoyed – Billy’s squad is performing in a show while trying to get a movie made about their story, so there’s plenty of opportunity for meta dialogue.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

We watched the other two Hobbit movies last week, but I was most excited about this one because I hadn’t seen it before. It’s a great conclusion to the series, and as the title suggests, it’s basically one huge battle. Bilbo, as always, is the best character. Martin Freeman has a lot on his shoulders, and carries it beautifully. I was not a big fan of the interpersonal drama involving Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili – it seems like a cheap emotional ploy to get the audience to care about characters. I also thought Thranduil’s motivations could have been explained a little bit better, he seemed to do whatever was convenient to the plot. That being said, it was great to see the how the alliance of men, elves, and dwarves came together.

Titanic (1997)

I always think of Titanic as defining my generation. It was the first English movie that I remember being a huge deal in India. I only saw Titanic once, but I can sing The Heart Will Go On pretty much from memory, and I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. I hadn’t seen it for about fifteen years, though, so I was looking forward to seeing it from a fresh perspective. And… it’s pretty good, but it also has flaws.

James Cameron is the master of making formulaic movies that are made so well that you almost don’t notice the predictability, and Titanic is probably his masterpiece. The attention to detail is astounding – the sets are gorgeous and immersive, and the people walk, talk, and act differently from the way they do these days. They even filmed at the real Titanic wreck twelve times! But it is formulaic, and the characters are mostly just archetypes, and that’s okay – not every movie has to have well-rounded characters. Jack is only likeable because he’s everything Rose needs him to be, and isn’t really a character otherwise, and Cal seems to do whatever the plot needs him to do to be a villain.

Arrival (2016)

I was really excited about Arrival, I love sci-fi movies, and I’ve seen it reviewed with titles like “sci-fi masterpiece of a generation.” Well, it’s a good sci-fi movie, but it has too many flaws to be a masterpiece. We follow Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is chosen to try and communicate with newly arrived aliens. Her attempts to decipher the alien language are interspersed of shots of the story of her daughter. I loved the atmosphere of this movie, it takes a slow and contemplative approach to telling the story (a little like Interstellar.) However, the science depicted is the movie is terrible (the learning/teaching of the language scenes don’t account for so many variables and are almost painful to watch), and the movie eventually turns into a generic save-the-world-before-time-runs-out plot. A lot of movies get science wrong, so it’s not that big of a deal, and the movie was still enjoyable because it was well-made.

Mad Max (1979)

In a post-apocalyptic future, Max Rockatansky is one of the best cops to police the roads. When a gang of criminal bikers hurt his partner and then his family, Max seeks revenge. I didn’t enjoy this movie very much, although Joseph loves the sequel and says it is very different, so we’ll keep watching the series. The movie throws you right into the world without explanation, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. The way it’s shot and the action scenes are compelling, especially on such a low budget. I didn’t like the pacing, for most of the movie, things happen, but don’t seem to matter at all, and so it’s boring. Max only does something in in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. The other part I didn’t like was that we just keep hearing about how Max is the best, but it seemed entirely like telling, not showing.

Backdraft (1991)

I’ve liked several of Ron Howard’s movies (Apollo 13, Willow, A Beautiful Mind), so I was expecting Backdraft to be pretty good, but unfortunately, it’s terrible. It’s two different movies fused together – one is about finding a dangerous arsonist that’s been murdering people, the other is about two firefighters/brothers who can’t get along learning to trust each other. The arson investigation is actually pretty great – Robert De Niro plays the curmudgeonly investigator who has all the best lines in the movie, Donald Sutherland plays a delightfully crazed imprisoned arsonist – and if the movie only focused on that, it would be terrific. Unfortunately, it’s main focus is a badly-written and over-sentimental “family” plot, and it just doesn’t work.

“Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty

I haven’t read any good sci-fi in a while, so I was looking forward to reading Six Wakes. I’ve enjoyed Mur Lafferty’s other works (The Shambling Guides series), and I’ve even interviewed her on this blog.

Six Wakes is about a crew of a generation ship who wake up in clone bodies to a scene of carnage – their previous bodies are all dead or dying, and the last twenty five years of their memories are missing. As they try to reconstruct what happened and figure out who among them is a murderer, we learn more about their past lives and the politics of cloning.

The real star of this book is the concept of cloning. The author really delves into what our world would evolve into in a few hundred years if cloning and mindmapping was commonplace. I don’t agree with some of the predictions, but they’re consistent and fit the story well. First, we see what “normal” clones are like, and then we are slowly exposed to some of the bizarre (but completely understandable) ways that the technologies could be used.

The characters are good, but they’re a little flat, and I didn’t feel like I was able to connect with them. This could be because of expectations – the author’s Shambling Guides books are urban fantasy, and it’s a staple of the genre to show exactly what the protagonists are feeling and thinking. This is a very different kind of books, everyone on board has secrets they are hiding from each other and from the reader, so they’re pretty tightly buttoned up. I felt like that made the reveals a little awkward, because every member of the crew is also a point of view character at some point, but even though we know their immediate feelings, they never think about their secrets until after they are revealed. I understand that that kept the tension in the story, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of the revelations seemed to come from nowhere.

Sometimes I felt like the book had too much human drama, but the conclusion of the story is satisfying – the technology is cool throughout, but in the end, everything comes down to human decisions.


Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.