Movies Watched: May 22 – May 28, 2016

[May 22] “Cocktail” (1988)

cocktailTom Cruise plays Brian Flanagan, a money-obsessed young ex-soldier who dreams of making it in the corporate world, but can’t without a college degree. He gets a part-time job as a bartender to pay for college, but it turns out that he’s really good at it. But when he meets a girl he really likes, he has to figure out what his priorities really are. I’m not really sure if this was a good movie, but it was definitely fun. Tom Cruise is charming as always, and Bryan Brown (who I don’t remember seeing in anything) really steals the scenes he’s in as the mentor/friend Doug Coughlin. The overall storyline is pretty predictable, but the characters seem three-dimensional, and I notably liked the dialogue. The last few minutes of the movie frustrated me, though, it seems like they wanted a dramatic climax, although the rest of the movie had a pretty relaxed tone, so it ended up being pretty jarring and seemed out of character.

[May 23] “Bad Boys II” (2003)

bad_boys_iiThe sequel to Bad Boys, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as constantly bickering narcotics cops Mike and Marcus, this time investigating the source behind a bunch of Ecstasy that’s making its way to Miami. Things get complicated because Mike is secretly dating Marcus’ sister Syd, who also happens to be an undercover DEA agent investigating the same drug kingpin. I didn’t like this one as much as Bad Boys, it really ramped up the action, which means there wasn’t as much character development, and the comedy seemed more basic. Michael Bay being Michael Bay, the action scenes are pretty cool, and there are a lot of explosions. Jordi Mollà really hams it up as the villain Johnny Tapia, and that’s both bad and good. Also, the relationship between Mike and Marcus didn’t seem as interesting as it was in the first movie, they seemed simultaneously colder to each other but also more familiar, and there wasn’t much tension despite it being implied.

[May 24] “Cloverfield” (2008)

cloverfieldCloverfield is a found footage film that follows a bunch of twenty-something New Yorkers during a huge monster’s rampage throughout the city. I don’t usually like monster/thriller type movies that much (unless they’re amazing like Alien and Aliens), but Cloverfield was incredibly well made. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a found footage film before, I thought it would be gimmicky, but it works really well – the actors don’t seem like they’re acting, they seem like real people that just happened to be filmed, down to some pretty awkward moments. The first act of the movie is set during a surprise farewell party, and has sort of a romantic drama tone, and it was so compelling that I was actually disappointed when the monster showed up. My disappointment didn’t last long, though. I also thought the glimpses of the tape that was being recorded over was a cool touch, it helped give background to the main characters without taking us out of the story.

[May 25] “Clerks” (1994)

clerksClerks follows convenience store clerk Dante and his friend and next door video store clerk Randal through a day at work. This was director Kevin Smith’s first movie, and it’s extremely low budget and filmed in black and white, but I can see why it made him famous. I’m not really sure how to describe this movie; it kind of reminded me of Friday in that it’s just two guys hanging out, and stuff happens occasionally. It’s not slow though, it’s entertaining and well paced. It took me a little bit of time to get used to the rude/crass characters, although I’m pretty sure that was just me getting used to the tone of the movie. I had seen the scene where Dante and Randal discuss the morality of the rebels blowing up the second Death Star (in Return of the Jedi) when it was still in construction before, I think it’s pretty famous. I wonder if making Finn a toilet installer in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a homage to that. I also think it’s cool that many of Kevin Smith’s movies are set in the same universe, I’m looking forward to seeing more.

[May 26] “Heavy Metal” (1981)

heavy_metalHeavy Metal is an animated science fiction anthology film made for adults, based on serials from the science fiction/fantasy comics magazine of the same name. I’m not familiar with the magazine, but apparently it’s well known for dark and erotic themes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything animated that was explicitly meant for adults, and I found it pretty weird. Each of the stories in the anthology was animated by a different team, and so they all look somewhat different. The framing story featuring the evil Loc-Nar is pretty tenuous, but it’s good to have something to tie everything together. The quality of the stories varied, my favorite was probably the classic good vs. evil story Taarna. One of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies, The Fifth Element, was clearly inspired by Heavy Metal, definitely by the Harry Canyon story (New York cabbie, pretty redhead needing help gets into his car, etc.) and the Great Evil seemed similar to the Loc-Nar. Both Den and Harry Canyon have some pretty pulpy sexual content, which was interesting. I didn’t like Captain Stern and B-17 as much. I found the movie as a whole very weird, but I’m glad to have seen it.

[May 27] “The Bourne Identity” (2002)

the_bourne_identityAfter all the non-standard movies of the past few days, I really wanted to watch a normal movie, so we ended up watching The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, an amnesiac who discovers that he has the skills of an super-assassin, and that people are out to kill him for reasons unknown. I’ve seen this movie before, but it was a long time ago, and I didn’t remember much. It’s a really good movie though, and not just because I have a weakness for action/spy movies. It does a great job at building tension, and it also isn’t dominated by the action scenes, there are a lot of nice character moments. I liked Franka Potente as Marie, she does a good job of being scared of Bourne but also being intrigued and attracted to him. I believe this was Matt Damon’s first action role, I read that he spent a lot of effort building his muscles and he did a lot of his own stunts, which is pretty cool because his character does a lot of dangerous things. I’m looking forward to seeing the other two movies in the trilogy.

[May 28] “21 Grams” (2003)

21_grams21 Grams follows three people all connected by a tragic accident – Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a suburban housewife with two young daughters, Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-convict who has pulled his life together through his newfound Christian faith, and Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a man dying of heart failure and dealing with a rocky marriage. This is the second movie in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Death” themed trilogy. I reviewed the third movie, Babel, last week, and just like Babel, this movie is pretty depressing too. The most notable thing about 21 Grams is that it’s told through a series of scenes from the main characters’ lives, all in seemingly random order. We don’t follow a character or a chronology for any more than a couple of minutes. That makes for a confusing experience to start with, but events become clear as the movie progresses, and it coalesces into one cohesive story. All the actors do a really good job, I was especially sympathetic to Benicio Del Toro’s tortured character. Recommended, but just be aware that it will make you really sad.

Movies Watched: May 15 – May 21, 2016

[May 15] “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014)

exodus_gods_and_kingsExodus: Gods and Kings is based on the Biblical story of Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of ancient Egypt to their promised land. It’s made by Ridley Scott, and it’s got a pretty good cast – Christian Bale plays Moses, and it also has Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, etc. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. It felt kind of like a rehash of Gladiator (also made by Ridley Scott) – old king favors the protagonist over his own incompetent son, incompetent son is jealous and exiles the protagonist, he gets his comeuppance. The ancient Egyptian setting is interesting but never really explored that much, the characters seem pretty one-dimensional, the (admittedly short) original story is expanded with a bunch of clichés. Also, I thought God was severely miscast. The special effects are well-done, though.

[May 16] “Stargate” (1994)

StargateAfter watching Exodus: Gods and Kings, I really wanted to re-watch Stargate because it actually does interesting things with ancient Egypt. The premise is that the military is testing a device known as a Stargate that allows instant travel to another planet through a wormhole, but what they don’t expect to find there are humans transported from Earth long ago, worshiping a real god that strongly resembles Egyptian myths. I’ve watched more than nine seasons combined of Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, so I definitely have a soft spot for this universe – I hadn’t seen the original movie for years, though. This is a Roland Emmerich movie, so it’s not complicated – lots of running and fighting, but it’s a lot of fun. The world it sets up is really interesting – aliens involved in shaping our ancient civilization. The movie does a good job of selling the world, I especially love that the humans from the other planet don’t speak any English, and it’s all subtitled (when they finally manage to communicate, which doesn’t come easily either!) Also, this movie stars James Spader and Kurt Russell, both of whom I like quite a bit, and they do a great job, especially James Spader playing a total dork.

[May 17] “True Romance” (1993)

true_romanceClarence Worley (Christian Slater), a comic store worker and call girl Alabama Whiteman (Patricia Arquette) marry after a whirlwind romance. But when Clarence decides to handle Alabama’s pimp Drexl (so that they can be left alone in peace), they end up with a whole bunch of cocaine and some very angry mobsters after them. This was a really interesting movie, it’s written by Quentin Tarantino and has a lot of the elements of his movies – the type of violence is instantly recognizable, as well as the black comedy, and the unlikely heroes that are in over their head but manage to deal with it in style. But it’s also directed by Tony Scott, and that influences it a lot too – for one, the storytelling is linear. Most of the minor characters in this movie are really memorable – Gary Oldman plays the psychotic dreadlocked pimp to perfection, Christopher Walken as a mob enforcer is priceless (and so is Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s dad, especially in the scene they have together), Val Kilmer is mysterious but pivotal as Elvis, and Brad Pitt is hilarious as the stoner roommate – and there are lots more too. The style of the movie took a bit of getting used to, but I recommend it highly.

[May 18] “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

silver_linings_playbookPat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is just out from a eight month stay at a mental institution. He’s obsessed with getting back together with his estranged wife Nikki, but things get more complicated when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow with problems of her own. This is another David O. Russell (Three Kings, American Hustle, Joy) movie starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro — unfortunately the last one I hadn’t seen, and it’s great. It’s a little bit different from his other movies, it’s more of a straight up drama. I enjoyed seeing a movie about people that just have manageable mental illnesses, it didn’t stint on how bad it can be (Pat waking his parents up in the middle of the night to complain about Hemingway, for example), but it also didn’t make it something exotic – it showed how everyone’s crazy in some way. Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are amazing in it, they play complex characters with ease. I loved seeing Chris Tucker, he hasn’t been in a non-Rush Hour movie since 1997.

[May 19] “Revenge” (1990)

revengeI was looking forward to this movie because it’s by Tony Scott, which I usually enjoy, and it stars Kevin Costner, who I also usually enjoy. I didn’t like it very much, though. Jay Cochran has just left the Navy and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He goes down to Mexico to visit his friend Tiburon Mendez, and falls in love with his wife Miryea. Tiburon is a powerful and jealous man, though, and he doesn’t take betrayal lightly. This movie is based on a novella written by the same guy who wrote Legends of the Fall, and it’s melodramatic in the same way – brooding protagonist not confined by the bounds of propriety, family drama, a woman caught between multiple men, tragedy striking, codes of honor. Kevin Costner does a fine job, but I felt like the role didn’t take advantage of him, the protagonist is generic enough that anyone could have played him. I liked that the movie was set mainly in Mexico, and it manages to be atmospheric but also doesn’t make a big deal out of the setting. Nothing was badly done, I just didn’t care for the melodramatic storyline.

[May 20] “Babel” (2006)

babelBabel is four interlocking stories all connected loosely by a single event. A married couple is on vacation in Morocco when the wife is suddenly shot, a family of Moroccan herders buys a new rifle to keep their animals safe from jackals, the two kids of the married couple and their nanny travel to Mexico for a wedding, and a lonely deaf-mute teenager in Japan finds it hard to come to terms with grief and her sexuality. The movie is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who recently won two back to back Best Director Oscars for Birdman and The Revenant. Apparently it’s the third movie in a conceptual “Death” trilogy, but I haven’t seen any of the other two. Morocco, Mexico, and Japan all feel really authentic, and it’s really cool to see a movie that can meld all those very different places together in a single story. Babel shows incredible skill in both the directing and acting but it also left me feeling depressed, which makes sense given that the tagline of the movie is “Tragedy is universal.” – all the characters are in pain of some sort. There were some flaws, I didn’t buy the actions of the characters in a few instances, but overall I’d recommend it.

[May 20] “Spider-Man” (2002)

Spider-ManI’ve never actually seen Spider-Man, even though I’ve seen the sequels multiple times. They keep constantly rebooting the franchise, but this is the original movie that made Spider-Man a popular film character, starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. Superhero movies have evolved a lot since 2002, I guess it started with the Dark Knight franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. I like this franchise and all the actors in it, but the movie seemed a little dated – there were a lot of plotholes and character motivations and acting seemed really simplistic (but I don’t think the superhero genre was taken very seriously when it was made, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing, just a style decision). For instance, Willem Dafoe really hams it up as the Green Goblin, which makes it hard to take him seriously as a threat. The action scenes were a little anticlimactic, especially the fight at the very end, which seemed similar to every other fight in the movie and ends rather suddenly. It was still a fun watch, though.

[May 21] “Green Zone” (2010)

green_zoneI love political thrillers and Matt Damon, and I’ve really enjoyed both Paul Greengrass movies I’ve seen (United 93 and Captain Phillips) so I was pretty sure I’d love this movie. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is the leader of a unit that is tasked to hunt weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq right after the US invasion in 2003. He goes rogue after missions repeatedly end with casualties but no evidence of WMD, and his higher ups insist that their intelligence is impeccable. Paul Greengrass is excellent at creating atmosphere, and Green Zone feels overwhelmingly realistic – the noise, the confusion, the people mobbing the Americans, the disparity outside of the Green Zone. Roy Miller’s story is not based on truth, but it skillfully weaves into the real story of how we didn’t find WMD in Iraq, and the policies enacted by the provisional government (like disbanding the Iraqi army.) It’s kind of like an Assassin’s Creed game in that way, adding a new “behind the scenes” protagonist to existing historical facts. As far as political thrillers go, this is more on the action end of the spectrum, but that’s well-executed too. Definitely recommended.

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu

TimeSalvagerI hadn’t read anything by Wesley Chu before, but I’ve heard extravagant praise for the Lives of Tao series, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Time Salvager was very good – it had a great premise, but the writing was clunky, the plot is riddled with clichés and the characters seemed more like archetypes than people.

It’s the 26th century, and humanity is in danger of extinction due to centuries of war and resource limitations. The only thing keeping humanity going are the chronmen, who take difficult excursions into the past and salvage material for present day rebuilding.  James Griffin-Mars is a chronman who gets a “golden ticket” job offer, accelerating his retirement considerably. However, on his way back, he breaks the cardinal Time Law, bringing a doomed scientist, Elise Kim back with him, and now they’re both fugitives.

Like I said, the premise of this book is interesting – time travel as a way to gather resources. What it actually ended up being was a mostly a lot of different action scenes with a clichéd evil corporation as the villain. There are a few forays into various historical periods, but they’re sparse on detail and atmosphere – in fact, the whole world it builds doesn’t seem compelling at all. Some of the lack of color makes sense with the whole “humanity is desperate” thing, but how desperate can humanity be with roving spaceship malls being commonplace?

None of the characters were engaging either, their decisions didn’t make any sense, and they seemed like a bunch of stereotypes thrown together – for example, the protagonist James is going somewhat crazy (complete with hallucinations of people whose lives he didn’t save), he likes Elise Kim, and I don’t know anything else about him. I can’t describe him as brave or determined or pretty much anything, he’s just someone who feels and thinks what the plot needs him to. Every other character has the same flaws, any attributes they have are just described by the text, not shown.

The book isn’t even self-contained – it’s clear setup for a trilogy, it raises a bunch of questions and answers none of them, and since the entire book has been fighting and running, the climactic fight doesn’t even seem much different from the rest of the book. I’m not sure how this book got so many glowing blurbs, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.

Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (Time Salvager, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Too Like The Lightning” by Ada Palmer

Too Like The LightningI knew absolutely nothing about Too Like The Lightning when I picked it up to read it (well, other than the fact that Tor had sent it to me, so it was presumably sci-fi or fantasy.) It’s not often that I encounter books I know nothing about, and ever rarer that I end up really loving them, so it was a very pleasant surprise.

It’s the twenty fifth century, and Earth has evolved into a kind of utopia where really fast flying cars have made the whole globe accessible, and nations are based on membership rather than geographical location. Our protagonist (as much as he likes to swear that he isn’t the protagonist) is Mycroft Canner, a convict sentenced to spend his life being of use to people, and Too Like The Lightning is presented as an in-universe account of events written (mostly) from his point of view. He’s also the protector of Bridger, a young boy who can seemingly make all his wishes come true and bring inanimate objects to life. When the house sheltering Bridger becomes the focus of a high-profile theft investigation, it kicks world-changing events into motion, and Mycroft is at the center of it all.

I’m not sure where to start – reading this book was like being drawn into a whole new world and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I had finished. I don’t think I’ve encountered any future utopias that still involve humanity living primarily on Earth – there’s Star Trek, but it involves spaceships and aliens. It seems ambitious because it fills in so many details of the world and how we got there from here. It’s not entirely a utopia either, all writing is censored and labeled, the practice of religion is outlawed (it’s instead been replaced by an order known as the sensayers, who are kind of like psychologists, philosophers, and priests combined, and talk to people about the existential questions that you can’t outlaw), and distinctions between genders are not encouraged. And the people populating the world are different too, as you would expect from a world where scarcity wasn’t much of an issue – still very much human, but with unfamiliar values and assumptions. I don’t think I’ve encountered such a cohesive and fascinating world in a long time.

I found the writing somewhat pretentious at first. Mycroft is deliberately borrowing heavily from the style of eighteenth century French philosophy, and it seems somewhat incongruous. Plus, he has an irritating habit of occasionally pretending to be the reader reacting to the text. It probably doesn’t help that he has a particularly sensational way of looking at the world sometimes – it’s pretty clear that it’s Mycroft’s point of view and not the world itself, though. I got used to it though, in part because the people in the world do seem like real characters (probably because they have the time to be, not having to work all the time.) I’m sure many of the references to Voltaire and Diderot and the Marquis de Sade and Robespierre and the rest went straight over my head, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

There’s a pretty large cast of characters, the sensayer Carlyle Foster is probably the most prominent of them, but they’re all very memorable. The book itself takes place over only three days, but a lot happens in those days – much of it talking (Too Like The Lightning is classified as political science fiction, so of course there’s a lot of politics, which I always love), but none of it is boring. It helps that Mycroft has known most of these people for years and can give us comprehensive introductions to them. The author really takes advantage of the fact that it’s presented as an in-universe book to give us information in a natural way. I can’t say much else about the plot, it seems to move slowly at first, but there are major payoffs. Also, the book doesn’t quite end in a cliffhanger, but you’ll be glad that the next book in the duology, Seven Surrenders comes out this year as well.

A couple of minor annoyances – like I said, the writing style bothered me for the while, and some things never stopped bothering me, like bringing up the national heritage of characters all the time as descriptors – for example both Thisbe Saneer and Bryar Kosala’s hair was described as “thick Indian hair”, I wish my Indian hair was thick! It just seemed like a shortcut to describing the characters, as well as tying the world to present Earth. Also, I guess it matches the eighteenth century France theme, but it seemed like everyone had weird sexual proclivities.

Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota, #1)
Tor Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Movies Watched: May 8 – May 14, 2016

[May 8] “Lord of War” (2005)

lord_of_warNicolas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer with origins in Little Odessa in New York City. It’s very biographical – we see the evolution of his career (of course), his relationship with his troubled younger brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), his courtship of his childhood crush (Bridget Moynahan), his relentless Interpol pursuer Jack Valentine (played by Ethan Hawke; what a name!) and much more. I’ve watched and loved this movie before, and re-watching it didn’t change that at all. Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed this, also wrote The Truman Show and wrote/directed Gattaca – he’s a smart guy. It doesn’t glamourise the life of an arms dealer in any way, and it shows plenty of bad things happening, but it’s also not moralistic or melodramatic. This is one of my favorite Nicolas Cage performances – sure, he’s in a lot of dumb action movies, but he’s also a really good actor in dramatic roles. Plus the opening titles sequence showing the life of a bullet is one of the most memorable I can think of.

[May 9] “Notting Hill” (1999)

notting_hillAn unassuming travel bookshop owner, William Thacker (Hugh Grant) meets the world’s most famous actress, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), and they fall in love. Being in a relationship with a famous actress comes with a whole additional set of pitfalls, though. Notting Hill is written by the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and it has a lot of the same tropes – a bunch of friends that all have their own side stories (mostly involving finding love), Hugh Grant being awkward and falling in love with a confident but temperamental American woman. I liked it better, though, Julia Roberts does a pretty good job as the love interest. I didn’t like that the movie ended with a climactic romantic declaration, it was pretty down to earth until then. I guess the main problem I have with romantic comedies is that I don’t usually think the characters know each other that well, and so I’m not really that invested in them getting together, and that was the case for this movie too – but I think that’s more a reflection on me than the movie.

[May 10] “Three Kings” (1999)

three_kingsThe Gulf War has just ended, and four U.S. soldiers in Iraq are determined to steal a huge cache of Kuwaiti gold in the confusion. Things don’t go according to plan though, as they meet a bunch of Iraqi civilians who are convinced they are heroes come to save them from Saddam. I think this was one of the first few movies that Joseph and I watched when we started dating, I didn’t remember much from it. It’s a pretty heartwarming movie, there aren’t a lot of movies that go from cynical to heroic so well. The four soldiers are played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze, and they are all very good. The atmosphere also seemed pretty realistic, the sets, the attitude of the military, the Iraqi refugees. One of the Iraqis is played by a real life Iraqi that was tortured by Saddam’s forces. I haven’t seen a David O. Russell movie yet that I haven’t enjoyed.

[May 11] “Super 8” (2011)

super_eightWhile filming an amateur movie, a group of kids witness one of their teachers deliberately crashing an Air Force train, and then inexplicable events start happening in their small town. Super 8 is pretty much a modern 80’s kids adventure movie, it seems pretty personal to writer/director J.J. Abrams, who also grew up making movies in the Super 8 format. It’s evocative of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, etc. (and it’s also produced by Steven Spielberg.) It’s pretty fun, the tension stays constant throughout the movie, and the kid who plays the main character, Joe (Joel Courtney) does a really good job, he’s cute, he’s determined, and he’s really sympathetic. There’s also a lot of families mending fences and getting closer to each other, which makes for good character arc. My only complaint was that I wished that there was more sci-fi and less thriller.

[May 12] “Joy” (2015)

joyJennifer Lawrence plays Joy, an overworked young mother who invents a revolutionary mop and her journey to starting her own business despite running into a lot of obstacles. This is another David O. Russell movie (like Three Kings above and American Hustle, which I’ve reviewed previously) and as usual, I enjoyed it. The pacing could have been better, it had a bit of a slow start, and the ending wrapped up a bit too quickly. But I didn’t mind because I found the story compelling, and Jennifer Lawrence is a joy to watch (no pun intended.) There aren’t a lot of movies about really smart women succeeding by just being who they are relentlessly, and I really liked that. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with her ex-husband, it’s not often that a movie depicts really good relationships and really dysfunctional ones (the ones with other members of her family) in the same context, it felt pretty realistic.

[May 13] “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979)

Kramer-vs.-KramerWhen Ted Kramer’s wife Joanna leaves him and their young son Billy, he has a hard time dealing with it at first, but he soon figures out how to be a great father. But then Joanna reappears and wants custody of Billy, and they have to fight it out in court. Kramer vs. Kramer won the Best Picture Oscar, and I can see why, it’s a really, really good movie. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep do an excellent job as the Kramers, and Justin Henry (who was the youngest Oscar nominee ever) does a really great job as Billy. Ted goes from being a stereotypical “married to the job” kind of guy to a devoted father without much fuss at all, and the growing bond between him and Billy is a joy to watch. I think this movie could be remade today without changing much of the dialogue or characters at all, it doesn’t feel over thirty five years old.

[May 13] “Gattaca” (1997)

gattacaIn the future, genetic engineering has become common and created a new underclass – the genetically inferior. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) dreams of traveling to space, but knows that he’s too genetically flawed to be allowed to do so, so he assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a disabled but genetically gifted man. He’s been pretty careful, but just as he’s about to go to Titan, there’s a murder at his workplace, and his secret might just come out. I’ve seen Gattaca before, and it’s one of my favorite science fiction movies. It’s really atmospheric, it gives you a real sense of the planned and clinical world that it has created, but it’s also somewhat noir (Writer/director Andrew Niccol is good at this) The trope of the individual pushing against his limitations (both internal and external) never gets old, and Ethan Hawke is a compelling protagonist (he has a great earnest/serious face.) Also I absolutely love Jude Law in this movie. The world that it portrays is a lot better than ours in many ways – humans go to space all the time, people are healthier and live for longer, but that doesn’t extend to all individuals, and I can’t think of many sci-fi movies that are as smart and add such complexity to their worlds.

[May 14] “Outbreak” (1995)

outbreakA deadly new virus decimates an African village in the Motaba River Valley in the Congo, and is believed to be contained, but eventually gets introduced into the U.S. by a smuggled African monkey. Army doctor Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), his ex-wife and CDC employee Robby Keough (Rene Russo) and their teams work frantically to contain the outbreak, but that’s not the only agenda in play. This was another dimly remembered rewatch for me, I remembered it as being similar to Contagion, the recent Matt Damon movie, but that was a drama, Outbreak is more of an action-thriller. It’s a pretty standard movie, although it’s got a really great cast – Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey – they’re underused, but still entertaining to watch. The plot is black and white, and fairly predictable, especially the relationship between Sam and Robby.

“City of Blades” by Robert Jackson Bennett

City_of_Blades_coverI know this blog has been inundated with movie reviews lately, but I’m still reading books too!

Retired war hero General Turyin Mulaghesh is sent to the city of Voortyashtan on a sort of tour to count down the days until she earns her pension. That’s the official story, anyway – actually, she’s there to covertly investigate a new metal that just might be related to the supposedly dead gods of the Continent, and figure out why the last person sent to investigate the issue ended up missing. Voortyashtan is complicated, though, and there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

I enjoyed City of Stairs when I read it last year, but not as much as a lot of other people. Mulaghesh was one of my favourite characters in the book, though, so I was pretty thrilled that she was going to be the protagonist of City of Blades. She does not disappoint – she’s a curmudgeonly one-armed war hero that’s unabashedly competent and won’t take any nonsense from anybody. She starts off the book pretty tired and lost, but once she enters problem solving mode, there’s no one I’d rather have on the case. She’s got a unique perspective and it never gets tiring to look through it. I would read a whole series of books about Mulaghesh.

City of Blades starts off with a pretty similar premise to the first book – a Saypuri is sent to a hostile Continental city to investigate possible Divine intervention – but it quickly evolves into its own thing. It helps that it doesn’t have to do all the worldbuilding that City of Stairs had to; the world of these books is complicated, and it was good to be familiar with how it all worked. The world does get extended, but in a very natural way. The martial Voortya is a pretty interesting god to explore, and Mulaghesh is the perfect person to understand her.

The new characters introduced in this book are pretty cool, especially Sigrud’s engineer daughter Signe. Sigrud is back as well, and he seems much more like a real person, which was great. I was a little bit frustrated with the character arcs of the villains – I can’t say more without spoilers, but I wished that they were less stereotypical. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise terrific book, though.

I’m looking forward to the third book, City of Miracles – I think that’s going to be the last book. Sigrud is going to be the protagonist, which I’m more excited about thanks to his development in City of Blades.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities, #2)
Broadway Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Movies Watched: May 1 – May 7, 2016

[May 1] “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)

zero_dark_thirtyBased on the true story of the US hunt for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We follow CIA analyst Maya on her search for bin Laden, through several years misinformation and false leads, until she finally thinks she’s found him. This movie is pretty relentless, it’s by the same writer and director team as The Hurt Locker, another very intense movie about the recent war on terror. Jessica Chastain does a really good job as Maya, from her beginnings as a rookie to her determination to find bin Laden despite a lot of opposition. I found the amount of torture depicted a little scary though, especially because it so often provides accurate results (which I’ve always heard is not the case with torture.) I also wish the movie hadn’t taken quite as many liberties with the facts of what happened, it seemed like they always went for the more traditionally dramatic plot points.

[May 2] “Moneyball” (2011)

moneyballAnother “based on a true story” movie about Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane’s adoption of a new statistical approach to hiring players in order to successfully compete against teams with much bigger budgets. I don’t know anything about baseball, but I enjoyed this movie a lot – it reminded me of the movie Draft Day, which is also about the behind-the-scenes aspect of a sport. Brad Pitt is always pleasant to watch, and he does a good job as Billy Beane. Jonah Hill is usually known for his comedic roles, but he’s great as the Oakland Athletics’ assistant GM/statistical whiz. Plus it was nice to see Chris Pratt before he got super famous. Moneyball is well paced, it’s well shot, and it was feel good without being too unrealistic.

[May 3] “Bad Boys” (1995)

bad-boysWhen a whole lot of heroin is stolen from the police station, officers Marcus Bennett (Martin Lawrence), a long-suffering family man, and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith), a smooth talking unrepentant womanizer, are put on the case. They’ve got more than just a clever thief to deal with though – there’s a scared murder witness to protect, an internal affairs cop after them, and an accidental identity switch that they have to keep going until the case is over. This is a pretty silly movie, but Will Smith and Martin Lawrence have great comic timing, so it’s pretty fun. It’s made by Michael Bay, so as usual with him, it’s not very subtle and there are a lot of explosions. Tchéky Karyo does a great job as the charismatic villain, and Téa Leoni plays a very convincing borderline-insane woman (she does that really well in Spanglish too.)

[May 4] “Rush Hour” (1998)

rush-hourWhen the Chinese Consul’s young daughter is kidnapped, he brings in an Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan), a trusted detective from Hong Kong to help solve the case. Detective Carter (Chris Tucker) is assigned to be Lee’s guide and keep him out of the hair of the American authorities already working on the case. The two form an unlikely partnership and decide to solve the case themselves, though. Rush Hour is definitely a comedy, but it also has a lot of heart, especially around Inspector Lee and his relationship with the kidnapped girl. Chris Tucker is his usual obnoxiously loud self, and usually I find people like that annoying, but I really like him (possibly because he played such a great character in The Fifth Element.) Jackie Chan is simultaneously adorable and deadly and really funny. Definitely one of the best buddy cop action comedies I’ve seen.

[May 5] “Rush Hour 2” (2001)

rush-hour-2We enjoyed Rush Hour so much that we watched Rush Hour 2 the very next day. Inspector Lee and Detective Carter are vacationing in Hong Kong after the events of the first movie, but Lee just can’t stop working and they’re soon pulled deep into a case involving counterfeit American dollars. This movie seemed less well-rounded than the first, there’s a lot more action and fewer quiet moments. It doesn’t really get going until halfway through the movie, a lot of the beginning felt like Lee and Carter just stumbling into stuff randomly, and not finding much except comedy material. Chris Tucker also seemed a little bit more obnoxious in this movie. But it’s still fun to watch, there seems to be genuine affection between Lee and Carter, and that makes up for a lot of things.

[May 6] “The Abyss” (1989)

the-abyssWorkers in an underwater oil rig are asked to help in search and rescue operations to find a sunken US nuclear submarine. They end up encountering some very strange things underwater, though. There are two versions of this movie – I watched the shorter theatrical version, and the ending is pretty different from the special edition. The Abyss is written and directed by James Cameron and it has all the hallmarks of his movies – a very well-realized world and great atmosphere, a bunch of action, some romance, sci-fi. I really enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character Lindsey, the extremely stubborn oil-rig designer who’s the heart of the movie. Ed Harris is also great as the leader of the oil rig workers (and Lindsey’s estranged husband.) I kind of wished that there had been less action and more discovery, but it’s still a great movie.

[May 6] “Chef” (2014)

chefCarl Casper is a restaurant chef who’s just plain unhappy but refuses to acknowledge it – he’s cooking boring food, he’s recently divorced, and he never has time for his kid. When a bad review from a critic results in a blow up that goes viral, he’s fired and forced to reevaluate his life. Jon Favreau wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the movie – I tend to like movies that are made with a singular vision because they’re usually good, and this one is not an exception. It’s one of the most heartwarming movies I’ve seen in a long time. All the characters are really nice and reasonable people, even when they’re not on the side of the protagonist. Emjay Anthony, the actor who plays Carl’s son, is amazingly earnest, and he really carries the movie. Plus, even minor characters are played by terrific actors like Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey Jr. Highly recommended.

[May 7] “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

Captain-America-Civil-WarWe’re both big fans of Captain America (the Marvel Cinematic Universe version; I haven’t read any of the comics), and we actually went to the movie theater to see this movie.  The world is starting to fear the loss of life and destruction caused by superhero fights, so the United Nations pushes to regulate the Avengers through an oversight panel. The Avengers disagree about whether this is a good idea, and split into two factions led by Captain America and Iron Man. I enjoyed the movie, it’s fun, it’s got a lot of great action, and it actually sticks to its premise all the way through. It’s definitely got the Marvel tone to it, there’s plenty of quips, and it doesn’t get too dark, but that’s to be expected. There are a lot of superheroes – it seems a lot like an Avengers movie (only Thor and the Hulk are missing) without the bombastic threat, which is nice in one way, but I wanted more Captain America.

[May 7] “Little Buddha” (1993)

little-buddhaLama Norbu, a Tibetian monk, goes to Seattle to meet Jesse, a nine year old boy whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his master, Lama Dorje. As Jesse learns about Buddhism, we see the story of the Buddha from his birth as Prince Siddhartha through his journey to enlightenment. Along the way, we’re also introduced to two other candidates for the reincarnation of Lama Dorje. This movie was very interesting, the premise sounded a little ridiculous to me in the beginning, but it’s played absolutely straight and the boy that played Jesse does a really good job. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to be as authentic as possible, many of the Tibetian monks are played by real monks, and the set design is beautiful. Siddhartha is played by Keanu Reeves, which is a little weird, especially when he tries to do an Indian accent, but once I was able to suspend disbelief, he actually did a fairly good job. An odd movie, but recommended.

Movies Watched: Apr 24 – Apr 30, 2016

I’ve finally caught up with all my movie reviews! From now on, I’m going to be aiming to post one post every weekend with reviews of that week’s movies.

[Apr 24] “Sliding Doors” (1998)

sliding-doorsHelen has just been fired from her job, and she’s about to take the train home to her apartment. Her whole life will be very different depending on whether she catches the train or not, and we see both futures unfold in parallel. This movie is mainly a romantic comedy, but the parallel universe story makes it a bit more interesting than usual. Gwyneth Paltrow does a good job playing two different versions of the same character, and the movie makes it easy to distinguish the two timelines from each other despite featuring the same people. The way the parallel universe situation resolved itself at the end was a bit melodramatic for my taste, but that doesn’t make it bad necessarily. I also kept being reminded of My Real Children by Jo Walton, which has a similar premise, and which I really enjoyed – I feel like it’s unfair to compare Sliding Doors to it though, since the tones are very different.

[Apr 25] “United 93” (2006)

united93Based on the true story of one of the four planes hijacked during the September 11 terrorist attacks – the passengers figured out what the hijackers intended and attempted to take control of the plane rather than allow more people to be killed. United 93 is one of best dramatizations of real events that I’ve ever seen. It’s set in real time, and we see the events of 9/11 both from United 93’s perspective and various aviation control towers throughout the country. Most of the actors are not very well known, and we don’t even know most of the characters’ names – this seems like it would make us less invested in the story, but in reality this makes us feel closer to them because they seem like real people we have met on a plane. Some of the FAA/military people actually play themselves, so that adds to the realism even more. There’s no melodrama, director/writer Paul Greengrass lets the truth of the events speak for themselves. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here and just say that I can’t recommend this movie enough.

[Apr 26] “Adaptation.” (2002)

AdaptationCharlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is hired to write an adaptation of the book The Orchid Thief, but he’s having trouble figuring out how to adapt it. Meanwhile, he’s also having issues with his twin brother Donald and Amelia, the woman he likes. This is the most meta movie I’ve ever seen, because it was actually written by the real life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman when he was having trouble adapting The Orchid Thief, so it both adapts the story, tells the story of adapting the story, and extends the real story into something fictional. I liked it a lot, it’s very unusual and it wouldn’t have worked at all if it wasn’t so well written. Nicolas Cage does a great job as both Kaufman brothers, who are very different from each other, and Meryl Streep is terrific as usual. Chris Cooper is also fantastic as the colorful orchid poacher Laroche.

[Apr 27] “Lost in Translation” (2003)

lost-in-translationWashed up movie star Bob (Bill Murray) and neglected young wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) meet in a Tokyo hotel and become close. I’ve seen this movie before, but not after I realized that I notably liked Sofia Coppola (and this earned her a Best Director Oscar nomination), so I was looking forward to rewatching it. It’s a very good movie, Coppola portrays both characters’ loneliness and aimlessness, and the bewilderment of foreign culture beautifully. The relationship between Bob and Charlotte happens so naturally – they don’t talk very much, and what they say doesn’t matter, but their bond is apparent. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are both incredible (apparently Johansson was only 17, but she plays someone in her mid-twenties very well). Lost in Translation is sad, moving, subtle, quiet, and very very very good.

[Apr 28] “Taps” (1981)

tapsWhen it’s announced that Bunker Hill Military Academy is to be torn down and replaced with condos, a group of cadets decide to take matters into their own hands, and the situation quickly escalates. This movie has a great cast of people that weren’t famous yet – it’s Sean Penn’s first movie, Tom Cruise’s second movie, and there were also a bunch of people I recognize from recent TV like Giancarlo Esposito, Evan Handler, and Timothy Hutton. Taps is a movie about the dangers of ideology taken too far – the cadets at Bunker Hill think they know what honor and duty means, but they’re really just teenagers that don’t understand consequences yet. Tom Cruise is absolutely terrifying as the baby-faced company commander that’s way too excited about war, and Sean Penn plays dissenting but loyal friend to perfection, he’s easily the most sympathetic. It was also nice to Ronny Cox in a heroic role for a change.

[Apr 29] “Just Like Heaven” (2005)

Just-Like-HeavenDavid (Mark Ruffalo) has just moved into a new apartment, but the previous occupant Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) hasn’t quite left, she’s still haunting the apartment in non-corporeal form. They start to get to know each other and fall in love while trying to solve the mystery of Elizabeth’s existence. This is another pretty typical romantic comedy made somewhat interesting by the unusual premise. I like Mark Ruffalo a lot, I think he makes a great exasperated romantic comedy lead type, and Reese Witherspoon is a good actress too. I didn’t really buy their romance, though, I thought they made great friends, and I wish this had just been a movie about David helping Elizabeth figure out her existence – I think that would have been cuter. This isn’t a bad movie though, at least not as far as the romantic comedy genre goes.

[Apr 30] “21” (2008)

21Ben, an MIT senior, is invited to join a team of students led by Prof. Micky Rosa who go to Vegas and win big sums of money at blackjack by counting cards. This is nominally based on a true story, but it seems like the only thing that actually happened was that there was a team at MIT that counted cards to win at blackjack – pretty much everything else is original to the movie. 21 is not a very good movie. Every beat is predictable, the dialogue is usually trite, and a lot of the details just don’t make any sense. For example, Ben’s main motivation is enough money to go to Harvard Medical School (which he’s already been accepted into), but the possibility of a student loan is never even mentioned. I also didn’t find the characters that compelling – Ben is supposed to be socially awkward, but the actor does not really ever convey that. The rest of the team seems like caricatures too, and even Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne can’t really escape the confines of the writing. It was flashy and fast paced and fairly entertaining though, as long as you don’t expect much.

Movies Watched: Apr 11 – Apr 23, 2016

[Apr 12] “Castle in the Sky” (1986)

castle_in_the_skyTwo children, Sheeta and Pazu, go on a quest to find a mysterious floating castle, pursued by pirates and secret agents. This is the first movie officially released by Studio Ghibli (we’re watching all the Ghibli movies chronologically). I enjoyed this movie, it was more of a fun adventure movie than other Ghibli movies I’ve seen, although there are still definitely themes of environmental balance and the characters aren’t very black and white. I was really drawn into the world and mythology of Castle in the Sky, I wanted more movies set in the same world. Sheeta and Pazu aren’t as complex as some of the older Ghibli characters, but I liked their relationship a lot.

[Apr 12] “Menace II Society” (1993)

menace-ii-societyCaine, a young man from the projects (Tyrin Turner) who’s just graduated from high school tries to figure out what kind of life he wants – the usual life of drugs and violence that his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) lives by, or a new life far away from everything he knows. Menace II Society is a very good movie, although it’s also pretty depressing. The casual violence kind of horrified me – especially Larenz Tate’s character, but I guess it’s a reality in some parts of the country. There are some great scenes – the shots and angles that make you feel like you’re right there with the characters. Caine is a very sympathetic protagonist, even when he makes really dumb decisions.

[Apr 13] “Wing Commander” (1999)

Wing_commanderIn the 27th century, humans are at war with the ruthless alien Kilrathi, who’ve just captured a NAVCOM that will allow them to jump straight to Earth. It’s up to rookie pilot Christopher Blair (Freddy Prinze Jr.) and the battle cruiser he’s been assigned to to stop the fleet. This is not a very good movie (the dialogue is especially horrible), but it’s set in space and it involves spaceship fights and aliens, so it was still pretty enjoyable. I wish that the world of the movie had been better explained – they mentioned enough things (like about the Pilgrims) for it to be intriguing, but there was no real payoff.

[Apr 14] “Sideways” (2004)

SidewaysMiles (Paul Giamatti) and his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) take a week long vacation in California wine country in anticipation of Jack’s upcoming wedding. They’re very different from each other – Miles is uncertain, lonely, and depressed, and Jack is determined to have as much fun and sex as he can. I really liked this movie, Paul Giamatti in particular is terrific as Miles. He conveys a billion things at once without having to say a single word. I always like movies about people growing and changing, and Sideways is extremely honest about how hard that can be. I also really like Sideways for showing people who are almost obsessively knowledgeable about something (wine) without making fun of it.

[Apr 15] “Tombstone” (1993)

tombstoneThe famous lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) decides to leave his past behind and moves in Tombstone, AZ to go into business. Unfortunately for him, the outlaw gang The Cowboys won’t leave the town alone, and he’s forced to intervene, along with his two brothers and his friend “Doc” Holliday (Val Kilmer). This is based on real events, and it’s a really good movie. I’m a fan of both Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, and I was really glad to see them in a movie together, being friends. Kurt Russell doesn’t have any of his usual smirkiness about him, but he’s great. Val Kilmer gets to have pretty much all the smirkiness of the movie, and he’s also great. The story is tight, the characters are three dimensional (even the outlaws), and the details of the world are done well.

[Apr 16] “Traffic” (2000)

trafficA bunch of connected stories about the drug trade in the US – the new “drug czar” appointed by the government (Michael Douglas) discovers that his daughter is a crack addict, a Mexican police officer (Benicio Del Toro) struggles with the situation he’s in, a drug baron’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes to terms with her husband’s business after he’s jailed, and a couple of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) protect an informant. Each of the stories has a different color tone, which I found a bit distracting at first, but it did make it really easy to figure out whose story I was watching. The actors were all really good, I found some of the storylines a bit melodramatic though (especially Michael Douglas’). It’s a good movie though, and a good look at the kinds of issues caused both by drugs and the drug war.

[Apr 17] “American Hustle” (2013)

american-hustleBased on a true story, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced to work for FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as part of a sting operation. DiMaso’s ambition pushes them into cons with much higher stakes than they’re used to, though, and they find themselves in dangerous waters. Movies about cons are usually pretty great, and this one is no exception – it’s even better than most because of the stellar cast. Christian Bale is almost unrecognizable as Rosenfeld, and he does a great job as always. I also thought Jeremy Renner was really good as the good hearted politician Carmine Polito, and I’ve never seen Jennifer Lawrence in a role like this – she plays Rosenfeld’s insecure and unpredictable wife to perfection. And Bradley Cooper, who’s usually so reassuring, really had me on edge every time he was on screen. I’m going on and on about the cast, but everything else about this movie was good too!

[Apr 18] “The Color of Money” (1986)

the_color_of_moneyWe were inspired to watch this movie by Roger Ebert’s “Tom Cruise formula” in his review of Days of ThunderThe Color of Money features retired pool player/hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) discovering cocky young pool player Vincent (Tom Cruise) who he believes can be a first rate hustler just like himself. With the help of Vincent’s girlfriend Carmen, he persuades Vincent to go on a road trip through various pool halls, but it doesn’t quite work out as planned. I was expecting a typical movie where Tom Cruise charms everyone around him and accomplishes something huge at the end, and although there’s elements of that, it’s really more of a character drama about the interactions of Fast Eddie, Vincent, and Carmen. It’s made by Martin Scorcese and so of course it’s very well-made. My only complaint was that this movie is apparently a sequel to The Hustler (1961) which I haven’t seen – I felt like it would’ve been helpful if I had because I didn’t quite get the payoff of Fast Eddie’s arc.

[Apr 20] “Message in a Bottle” (1999)

message_in_a_bottleNewspaper researcher Theresa (Robin Wright) finds a love letter in a bottle washed ashore from a man to his dead wife, and tracks down the writer, Garret (Kevin Costner). They start to fall in love, but the ghost of his wife makes it hard to have a future together. I really wasn’t expecting much from this movie (I know it’s based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, and while I haven’t actually read one, everything I know about them makes them seem melodramatic in a very generic way) but I like both Costner and Wright, so I wanted to watch it. It wasn’t a great movie by any means, but there were some good things about it – Paul Newman is really great as Garret’s dad, the area where Garret lives is beautiful, and the romance is realistically complicated. The ending frustrated me – it reminded me a lot of the frustration I had at the ending of The Guardian.

[Apr 21] “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)

my_neighbor_totoroTwo young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, move to the countryside with their father in order to be near their ill mother. They have a bunch of adventures, mostly with Totoro, a spirit of the nearby forest. My Neighbor Totoro is a much simpler movie than the previous two Ghibli movies (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky) – it’s a story about kids having adventures, there are no antagonists, and the main conflict is just traditional sibling misunderstandings. I think a lot of people really love this movie because it captures childhood so well, but I didn’t identify with this movie very much because I’m an only child, and as a kid, I usually shut myself in and read books – I didn’t ever run around. It’s cute, it’s magical, and it’s a great movie, but it’s not my favourite of the Ghibli movies so far.

[Apr 22] “The Sting” (1973)

the-stingWhen his partner is murdered by a mob boss, young con man Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with veteran of the “big con” Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take him down. The Sting is a great movie – it’s got a lot of twists and turns as any good con movie should, but it’s not ostentatious and flashy about them. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are terrific together. I always find it really hard to review movies that I like a lot because everything just works well together, there’s not a lot to single out. One thing I did find interesting was the number of people involved in the scam; usually movies tend to be about a few guys pulling off something huge.

[Apr 23] “Rounders” (1998)

RoundersReformed gambler Mike (Matt Damon) goes back to playing high stakes poker to help his friend Worm (Edward Norton) out of his debts. I loved this movie when I first saw it years ago, and that hasn’t changed at all. Edward Norton’s character Worm is particularly infuriating, he plays a very convincing sleazeball and lives up to his name entirely. Matt Damon is a master of playing sympathetic protagonists who may be making questionable life decisions (Good Will Hunting, The Good Shepherd, The Informant! to name a few), and he really sells you on his conviction that poker is something he can win consistently at. Rounders is predictable but it’s so well executed that that doesn’t matter at all, and it leaves you feeling great.

[Apr 23] “The NeverEnding Story” (1984)

the-neverending-storyBastian is a lonely young boy that’s often tormented by bullies at school. One day, when running away from them, he finds a mysterious book about the land of Fantasia and the hero Atreyu, but as he reads it, it turns out the the story might not be as fictional as he assumed. I really enjoyed the book when I first read it, but I’d read it long enough ago that I didn’t remember the details. It’s a pretty fun adventure story, and the actor who plays Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) does a great job of playing a warrior that also happens to be a child. The setting and the creatures are pretty well done, although Falkor seemed a little odd. I can’t help comparing it to the book though (I reread it immediately after the movie), and I wish they’d retained some of Bastian’s character growth rather than just making it a fun adventure for a lonely boy.

Movies Watched: Apr 1 – Apr 10, 2016

[Apr 1] “Swimming with Sharks” (1994)

swimming-with-sharks-movie-posterGuy (Frank Whaley) is the newest assistant to legendary Hollywood producer Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). He starts off all bright eyed and enthusiastic, but Ackerman turns out to be the worst boss imaginable, and eventually after much suffering, Guy gets his revenge. This was a pretty odd movie, none of the characters are very likeable, even Guy doesn’t seem very sympathetic even as he’s being put through hell by his boss. However, Kevin Spacey is excellent as the abrasive and volatile Ackerman, he’s kind of like Ari Gold from Entourage, but without all the heart.

[Apr 2] “From Russia with Love” (1963)

from_russia_with_loveThis continues our quest to watch all the Bond movies in order – From Russia with Love is the second movie after Dr. No. In revenge for killing Dr. No, Spectre sets up a trap to lure Bond into stealing a Russian decoding machine, with the side effect of causing hostilities between the British and the Russians. I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, it clearly has a bigger budget than the first one, and the action moves through a lot of different locations. Plus, we have Q and some pretty cool gadgets! My only complaint was that Bond seems to just be reacting to things in this, rather than figuring things out for himself.

[Apr 2] “Spanglish” (2004)

spanglish-movie-posterThis is one of Joseph’s favourite movies (and mine too!), and was a rewatch. Flor (Paz Vega), a newly immigrated woman from Mexico starts working for famous chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler) and his family in Los Angeles. Their families end up becoming close, and Flor has to navigate cultural shock and an attraction that she doesn’t anticipate. I haven’t seen any of Adam Sandler’s comedies, but I’m assured that they are really dumb – this is not one of those movies. It’s a really cute movie about adults making responsible choices despite whatever they feel, despite other adults making horrible choices based entirely on how they feel. Téa Leoni is horrifyingly believable as Deborah Clasky, John Clasky’s neurotic and insecure wife, and the rest of the cast is great too.

[Apr 2] “Tango & Cash” (1989)

tango_and_cashTango (Sylvester Stallone) and Cash (Kurt Russell) are two lone wolf narcotics cops with very different styles, but one thing in common – they’re great at at their jobs. When the city’s leading crime lord gets tired of them and has them framed, they have to learn how to get along and work together to clear their name. Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone are both terrific, both individually and when they play off of each other. There are some good action scenes, there’s comedy, and while this isn’t an amazing movie, it’s very entertaining.

[Apr 2] “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)

miracle_on_34th_stWhen the newest Santa employed by Macy’s claims that his name is Kris Kringle and he’s the real Santa Claus, he ends up being institutionalized for insanity. He’s defended by young lawyer Fred Gailey, who not only has to prove that Kringle might very well be the real Santa Claus to the law, but also to his no-nonsense neighbor (who works for Macy’s and hired the Santa) and her young daughter. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, the acting was great, and I liked the look into the world of the 1940’s. I thought it was pretty cool for an independent, divorced woman to be in management at a large business – the world seems to have taken a step backwards in the next couple of decades (at least judging by the James Bond movies and things like Mad Men.)

[Apr 3] “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997)

seven_years_in_tibetBased on a true story, this movie tells the story of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who lived in Tibet for seven years and became friends with the Dalai Lama. It’s set immediately preceding and during China’s takeover of Tibet, which I didn’t know much about, and I found very interesting. Brad Pitt plays Harrer, and he’s pretty good, even if his accent took a bit of getting used to. I found the Dalai Lama fascinating, the actor who plays him does a fantastic job of conveying the mixture of curiosity, brilliance, and wisdom usually associated with him. The movie really draws you into the world of Tibet along with Harrer and his friend Aufschnaiter (played excellently by David Thewlis), and even if you know the inevitability of what happens with China, you can’t help but mourn the loss of old Tibet.

[Apr 3] “The Truman Show” (1998)

the-truman_showAnother re-watch. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), an insurance salesman, is coming to realize that he’s spent all of his life in a simulated reality – he’s been the subject of a television show from birth, and his friends and family are all actors just playing the part. This is a classic movie for a good reason, it’s great! I don’t know if it would have been half as good without Jim Carrey playing Truman, he’s generally lovable, from when he’s greeting his neighbors to when he’s facing his worst fears and figuring out the truth despite literally everyone in his life manipulating him. The rest of the cast is great too, but I was most impressed by Laura Linney (I find her so reassuring in John Adams, among other things) who’s incredibly creepy with her saccharine responses to everything and her obvious product placement.

[Apr 4] “Ronin” (1998)

roninA team of ex-spies and special forces soldiers is hired by the Irish to steal a heavily guarded suitcase. Loyalties within the team aren’t as simple as they seem, though, and when things go wrong, a complex and deadly game of intrigue is set into motion. I thought this movie was fantastic, it’s a very different kind of action movie, it’s not sleek or glossy, it’s atmospheric and it’s realistic. For example, the car chases show the cars being handled realistically, and plenty of collateral damage, and the scenes with gunfights pay close attention to bullets that miss as well as bullets that hit. The cast is really great, Robert De Niro as ex-CIA agent Sam and Jean Reno as ex-French agent Vincent are particularly wonderful (especially when working together!) Highly recommended.

[Apr 5] “The Ghost and the Darkness” (1996)

the_ghost_and_the_darknessBased on the true story of two legendary man-eating lions preying on workers building a bridge in East Africa in late 1890s and Col. John Patterson’s (Val Kilmer) efforts to deal with them. Patterson is a famous engineer, but he’s never built anything in Africa with its unique problems – a workforce divided by ethnic tensions (African natives vs. Indian migrants, and further divisions within those two groups), constant disease, and of course, man eating lions. I’ve always been fascinated by man-eaters because my grandfather was too, and when I was growing up, he often told me stories about hunting them. I also don’t think I’ve seen any movies set in this time period in Africa, and so that was interesting too. It’s hard to imagine simple animals being so menacing in an era of industry, but the movie manages to make them terrifying. The cast is great too, especially Michael Douglas as the larger than life big game hunter Remington.

[Apr 6] “Space Cowboys” (2000)

space-cowboysIn the 1950’s, hotshot pilot Frank (Clint Eastwood) is pulled off the nascent space program, along with his crewmates. Fifty years later, when an satellite with an operating system designed by Frank is failing, he insists on being sent to space to repair it himself, along with the rest of his old team. Lots of humor about old people in space ensues. I love space, and I think Clint Eastwood is a great director, so I was ready to love this movie, but I really didn’t. It followed a pretty similar story to Armageddon, but seemed much more unoriginal, it seemed like the story was being told by a formula rather than following characters. A lot of the humor felt flat too. It’s too bad, because all the actors were great.

[Apr 6] “Four Brothers” (2005)

four_brothersWhen an upstanding woman who’s helped many members of her local community is seemingly randomly killed in a grocery store robbery, her four adopted children get together to avenge her death. They (of course) find out that there’s a lot more to her death than they first realized, but they’re treading very dangerous waters. I enjoyed this movie, it’s directed by John Singleton who also did Boyz n the Hood, and it’s got that same grounded feeling to it. I didn’t quite buy Chiwetel Ejiofor as the capricious gangster, he seemed like he was trying to chew scenery but not quite succeeding, but that’s a minor quibble.

[Apr 7] “The Patriot” (2000)

the_patriotSoldier-turned-farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) tries to stay out of the Revolutionary War to keep his family safe, but when tragedy strikes, he can’t help but join the fight against the British. I liked this movie up to about halfway through, but it ended up being too ridiculous and melodramatic by the end – it’s made by Roland Emmerich, who often likes to do that kind of thing. I’m not even sure why this movie is called The Patriot because Martin is not patriotic, he just wants to defend his family – there are no speeches about America’s values or taxation without representation or anything, there’s just the British troops being cruel and horrible and the “bad guys”, and the Americans being good and noble and the “good guys”.  I do enjoy seeing Heath Ledger in things though.

[Apr 8] “The Quiet American” (2002)

the-quiet-americanBritish reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) enjoys his life in 1950’s Vietnam – he doesn’t have too much work, and he’s got a beautiful girlfriend, Phuong. However, things are changing – the paper wants him back in London, a young American doctor named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is trying to win his girlfriend away, and the conflict between the French and the communists in Vietnam is getting worse. This is an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, and it’s really all about Fowler and Pyle and their different philosophies. Both Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine are incredible, and play nuanced and complex characters – their situation can get unusual at times, but they handle it well. You don’t really know what’s going on until the very end, but it all makes sense. A strange but unexpectedly good movie.

[Apr 9] “Hook” (1991)

hookPeter Pan (Robin Williams) has forgotten his origins and grown up into a busy corporate lawyer, but when Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps his children, he has to go back to Neverland and reclaim his legacy in order to rescue them. I love this movie; this was a re-watch. It’s made by Steven Spielberg, so of course it’s well-made. Robin Williams is excellent as usual, and Dustin Hoffman as Hook chews the scenery to shreds (it takes a lot to do that in a movie with Robin Williams!) and he’s clearly having so much fun. Julia Roberts also holds her own as Tinkerbell, Maggie Smith is great as Wendy, and Neverland is boisterous and crazy and very familiar from reading the books (although minus the Indians).

[Apr 9] “Everything Must Go” (2010)

everything-must-goAlcoholic Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) has just lost his job, and he comes home to discover his wife has left him, changed the locks, and left all his stuff out on the lawn. His friend gets him a permit for a yard sale in order to buy him some time, and he must come to terms with his situation and figure out his life before it expires. I like Will Ferrell in this movie, it’s not really a comedy like his usual roles, and he’s very sympathetic as a guy whose whole life is falling apart around him. As usual with these movies, he meets some people, relapses, gets better, and eventually ends up making a beginning towards making his life better. I liked it, my only complaint was that his wife seemed like an utterly horrible person (who leaves a house AND changes all the locks so her husband can’t use it either?) and I wish that had been addressed more strongly than it was.

[Apr 10] “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986)

big-trouble-in-little-chinaJack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a truck driver who gets mixed up into helping his friend Wang Chi rescue his fiancee who’s been kidnapped by the legendary Chinese sorcerer, Lo Pan. He enters a world of magic, monsters, and martial arts that he’d never even dreamed existed. The movie doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, and it’s very campy. Kurt Russell is pretty good in it, apparently it was one of the first movies to feature a protagonist who is brave but not very competent (at one point Kurt Russell’s character knocks himself out during a fight). Overly campy isn’t usually my style, but as far as it goes, I enjoyed it.

[Apr 10] “Days of Thunder” (1990)

days_of_thunderCole Trickle (Tom Cruise) is a young stock car driver who’s recruited as a driver for a new NASCAR team. This movie is directed by Tony Scott, and it’s pretty similar to Top Gun in a lot of ways – Tom Cruise plays a cocky hotshot who has to learn to work with his team, he charms someone in a position of authority, and most of the movie is him gaining experience to get to an eventual goal (Roger Ebert even codified this formula!). That’s not a bad thing at all, though, Tom Cruise has enough charm that you could see him do that over and over again. I don’t know much about NASCAR, but I enjoyed the movie, it’s fast paced and fun, and the characters are likeable.