Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 3-9, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Diner (1982)

Diner follows a group of five friends in their early twenties as they struggle with the transition into adulthood. It is set in Baltimore in the late ’50s and stars Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and (an unrecognizable) Mickey Rourke.

I feel like every decade has its own “group of friends dealing with becoming adults” movie (e.g. Singles for the early ’90s) and this is the one for the ’50s. The characters and the issues they’re wrestling with are instantly recognizable, even if the culture around them isn’t as familiar. In one way or another they’re all rebelling against their new responsibilities and the maturity expected of them. It’s nice to see that some of the problems people associate with millennials aren’t unique, other generations faced them too. I read that the cast had some time to get to know each other before filming began and that many of the scenes were improvised. That really comes through in the movie; their camaraderie seems so genuine.

I’m surprised that this Diner isn’t talked about given how good it is (although I did find a great article about how influential it is; if it can turn Nick Hornby into a obsessive fanboy, it has to be pretty good). Apparently this is one of four films written and directed by Barry Levinson based on his time living in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to seeing the other three.

Other Movies Watched

Working Girl (1988)

Secretary Tess McGill has been trying to improve her career prospects with little success. She’s put herself through night school, she’s suggested good ideas to her bosses, and she works very hard, but nothing has worked – in fact her boss Katharine has stolen her idea and passed it off as her own. When Katharine breaks her leg skiing and is out of commission for a few weeks, Tess takes the opportunity to steal her idea back by pretending that she is an executive.

The premise of this movie is similar to the Michael J. Fox movie The Secret of My Success that came out a year prior, but this one is much more of a drama. Tess comes from a blue collar background and she’s struggling to break through the glass ceiling that people that come from a more privileged background don’t seem to realize even exists. Melanie Griffith as Tess annoyed me a little bit because I thought she needed to be more assertive but I realized that that was exactly the point the movie was trying to make. Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver are great as the supporting characters as well.

The Parent Trap (1961)

When lookalikes Sharon and Susan meet at summer camp, they take an instant dislike to each other. Eventually they realize that they are twins – their mother and father divorced when they were young and took one child each. They decide to switch places so that they can get to know their other parent better and hopefully persuade them to get back together. Hijinks ensue.

This movie has a silly premise but it’s actually really good. Hayley Mills does a fantastic job at playing both twins, it’s easy to distinguish which character she’s playing except for when she’s trying to make herself indistinguishable for the plot. I liked the actors playing the parents as well, they have great chemistry and what should have been a clichéd reunion actually seems convincing – you’ve seen them without each other and they just don’t seem fully there until they’re together.

Free State of Jones (2016)

Free State of Jones is based on the true story of Mississippi farmer Newton Knight’s rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War. It follows Knight’s story over a few years, starting with his time as a Confederate soldier and ending a while after the Civil War.

This movie almost felt like a documentary or dramatization, it skipped over most of the dramatic scenes that a movie would ordinarily focus on. Matthew McConaughey does a good job playing Newton but he’s treated more like a heroic archetype than a real person, I can’t think of a single flaw in his character. The movie also intersperses the story of Davis Knight, Newton’s great-grandson who was prosecuted under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1940s, and I didn’t really see the point of that, it took me out of the main story.

The East (2013)

Jane (Brit Marling) is an operative who works for Hiller Brood, a private intelligence firm that caters to wealthy corporate clients. She takes on an assignment to go undercover and join a radical eco-terrorist organization that has been targeting companies they perceive as unethical. She finds herself growing attached to the people she meets and more compelled by their cause than she would like.

I think the best way to describe this movie is “almost great”. There is nothing wrong with it, it’s got a compelling premise, a solid cast who portray three-dimensional characters, it approaches a contentious topic without too much melodrama, but I kept feeling like something was missing. Maybe it’s because we see the movie through Jane’s eyes and she is not very interesting as a character, she mostly just observes what’s happening. I also found the ending rushed and what had been a nuanced movie until then suddenly morphed into a perfectly neat ending.

Greedy (1994)

The McTeague family has been trying to stay in their Uncle Joe’s good books throughout their lives, but even more so now that he is aging and might soon leave money to them. Their hopes are dashed when a young and pretty girl becomes Joe’s “caregiver”, so they hunt down Daniel McTeague, Joe’s estranged grandson. Daniel hasn’t seem his family ever since he was a kid but quickly gets pulled into their games, especially since his career as a professional bowler is ending and he needs money.

This is another one of those comedies where Michael J. Fox where he gets himself into trouble and has to extricate himself from it through a series of antics. Unlike his other movies though, this doesn’t have much heart. There are some funny moments but it’s mostly just an over-the-top comedy that doesn’t really care about characterization. It was entertaining but I’m never going to want to watch it again.

Man of the Year (2006)

When comedian and television talk show host Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) decides to run for President as an independent candidate, he doesn’t expect to actually get elected. Meanwhile programmer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) who works for the company that developed the electronic voting machines used for the election discovers a flaw in the vote counting mechanism – which means that Tom is not actually the legitimate President-elect.

I wanted to like this movie, it’s got a great cast (Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum are in the movie too) and it’s written and directed by Barry Levinson, who did Diner (reviewed above), Rain Man, and Good Morning Vietnam which are all excellent. It just wasn’t very good, though. It tries to be both a comedy and a thriller (with doses of drama and romance) and it’s jarring to switch between Tom making jokes to Eleanor running for her life. Robin Williams does his best with the material and elevates the movie a little but even his jokes aren’t consistently funny.

A tangential note: it was interesting to watch this movie in light of the last presidential election since Robin Williams plays an independent candidate who people vote for because he’s populist and not a career politician. I also wish the media actually gave independent candidates screen time like they showed in the movie.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 27-Sep 2, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Wolf Children (2012)

Wolf Children is Mamoru Hosoda’s third original movie, after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. It follows Hana, a woman who falls in love with a wolf shapeshifter. They marry and have two young children (who are also wolf shapeshifters) but tragedy strikes when Hana’s husband dies suddenly. She must now raise her two children alone without any support while also providing for both their human and wolf needs.

The premise of this movie sounded a little weird to me when I first read about it but I didn’t have to consciously suspend disbelief at all, the movie pulled me right in. Hosoda has said that his movies all revolve around certain themes – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is about youth, Summer Wars is about family, and Wolf Children is about motherhood. I think it’s one of the best depictions of the challenges and rewards of being a good mother that I’ve seen (disclaimer: I’m not a parent). The two children, Ame and Yuki, are nothing like each other and their reactions to events are often as dissimilar as you can get. They are each demanding in their own way, and Hana manages to be an amazing mother to both and never gives up even when the going is tough.

This movie made me pretty emotional, especially at the end. It even makes me emotional to just think about some of the events while writing this review. Not many movies do that. It’s quiet and thoughtful but the pacing doesn’t bore you and the characters and setting will stay with you for a while after you watch it. I highly recommend it!

Other Movies Watched

The Weather Man (2005)

David Spritz is a down-on-his-luck news station weatherman working for a Chicago TV station. It seems like everything that can go wrong in his life is going wrong; he’s a recent divorcee, his two kids have serious issues, his relationship with his father is stiff, and on top of everything the people who recognize him on the street often throw food at him for some reason. He hopes to make a new life in New York if he gets the job he applied for, but nothing is going right for him.

People often make fun of Nicolas Cage but he is a great dramatic actor (see Adaptation. and Lord of War for examples). He makes this movie succeed as well as it does, his character is constantly doing things that make his situation worse and you might be yelling at the screen in frustration but you still feel a lot of empathy for him. It reminded me a little of American Beauty in that the main character is a somewhat pathetic middle-aged man but finds purpose by the end (although the way it unfolds is quite different). I also liked the ending of this movie because it chose not to be overly sentimental or stereotypical and actually went with the choices that made sense for David’s personality.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman is the fourth film in the DC extended universe and tells the origin story of superhero Wonder Woman a.k.a. Diana Prince (whom we’ve already seen in Batman vs. Superman). It’s set during World War I; an American pilot on the run finds Diana’s hidden island home of Themyscira. He talks to her about the war raging across the world and that horrifies her and makes her determined to help stop it.

People are talking about this movie everywhere and I’m not surprised because it’s fantastic. Gal Gadot is superb as Wonder Woman; I had my doubts about her originally because the only thing I’d seen her in was the Fast and the Furious franchise, but her appearance in Batman vs. Superman dissolved most of them. Diana is naive and wears her heart on her sleeve but she’s also incredibly powerful and confident at the same time; Gadot portrays this nuance beautifully. The supporting cast was outstanding, I particularly liked seeing Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt and martial instructor, and Chris Pine playing the pilot, Steve Trevor. His character is the emotional heart of the movie and he’s the perfect mix of idealistic, lovable, and exasperated.

The movie does have some flaws, I thought that the romance between Diana and Steve was a little contrived and I would have liked for it to develop a little more slowly. I would have also liked Diana to have more agency, it seems like she’s mostly reacting to people and events around her rather than seeking them out herself. That might be an unfair criticism given that this is an origin story, though.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Eddy, a card-playing prodigy, and three of his friends band together to raise a hundred thousand pounds so that he can enter a high-stakes card game and make a lot more. The plan doesn’t quite work, and the four of them end up owing five times their original investment to a gangster known for his brutality. Their attempts to raise the money result in a comedy of errors involving the friends, their neighbors, gangsters, weed-growers, loan sharks, thugs, and probably a few other people I’m forgetting.

This is one of those movies that follows a bunch of different characters that seem unrelated at first but the threads come together gradually to tell a single story. It’s funny, clever, violent, and heavily stylized – sort of like Tarantino (it reminded me a little of Pulp Fiction) but the camerawork and direction is very different. I haven’t watched a lot of director Guy Ritchie’s movies, but as I understand it, this style is his trademark. It’s an impressive movie, especially for a debut director. It takes significant skill to intertwine the number of stories in this movie and have them all come together as tightly as it did. The actors are all great as well, I read that a bunch of them had never professionally acted before (including Jason Statham, who was apparently found by the production team as a street vendor) and it gives the movie a sense of authenticity.

Colombiana (2011)

After Cataleya’s parents are killed in front of her by drug lord Don Luis, she manages to escape to her uncle’s house in Chicago. Her uncle and grandmother try to give her a normal life but she continues to be determined to avenge her family. She grows up to be a deadly assassin committing vigilante murders around the country in order to draw Don Luis’s forces out.

This movie has been on our list for years. I’m not sure why it took us so long. It’s written by Luc Besson (apparently it was originally meant as a sequel to Lëon, but Natalie Portman was unavailable) and he’s good at writing kick-ass women. Zoë Saldana has played dangerous women before and she’s terrific in this movie; she manages to make Cataleya seem both tough and vulnerable at the same time. The action sequences are fun and the pacing is good. The movie did have a few glaring flaws, though – I thought the climactic fights felt too much like a video game’s boss fight, Cataleya handles most opponents effortlessly except for the last one or two, it took me out the movie a little bit. Also, Cataleya’s boyfriend Danny was pretty one-dimensional which stood out because none of the other characters seemed that way.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The Guardians of the Galaxy have been a team for a while now, capitalizing on their fame from saving the galaxy to get mercenary jobs. When their most recent job goes awry, they are saved by Ego, a mysterious being who says he is Star-Lord’s long lost father and wants them to visit his planet. But the family reunion doesn’t work out as planned and the Guardians need to save the galaxy yet again.

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie quite a bit and this one offers more of the same. I think I’m getting a little tired of Marvel’s formula though because I got tired of the constant formulaic (and bad) jokes and superficial character arcs. It did keep me entertained the whole way through but at the end I didn’t feel satisfied and I don’t think the movie earned its attempt at emotional payoff, especially given that it retconned the personalities of some characters from the first movie with no explanation. I was looking forward to seeing Kurt Russell as Ego but he was mostly wasted. Also, the soundtrack to this movie (a critical element in Vol. 1) didn’t seem as fun either. The most interesting part of the movie was Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose intensity actually sells her transition from villain to reluctant hero, but she isn’t in it that much.

Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls stars Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron, a teenager who has spent most of her life being home-schooled in Africa, as she moves back to the United States and starts high school. She joins the “Plastics”, the most popular (and mean) girls in the school so that she can spy on them for her real friends, but slowly starts getting sucked into being one of them herself.

I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for a long time since it get referenced all the time, especially by people of my generation. I didn’t like it much, though. The movie plays it like Cady is an earnest character, but I thought she seemed like a fake person the entire time and couldn’t invest in her story. The love interest, Aaron, doesn’t seem like he has any agency, he spends the whole movie being successfully manipulated by everyone around him to serve the needs of the plot and I was hoping until the end that he wouldn’t turn out to be the actual love interest. The movie just seemed shallow, even compared to other teen dramedies.

Rachel McAdams did an excellent job as the queen bee (and Cady’s nemesis) Regina; she is almost unrecognizable. I saw her name in the credits and I was wondering when she would show up. My husband had to point out that she was playing Regina and had already been in the movie for a while.

Book review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve been looking forward to the release of The Stone Sky ever since I read the previous books in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, (both of which have now won the Best Novel Hugo!) earlier this year. I devoured it as soon as I received it and it’s just as good as I thought it would be.

I don’t want to say too much about the story, it’s the third book of the series so pretty much everything is a spoiler. The Stone Sky does add a new viewpoint and it’s probably the most fascinating one so far. We explore the history of the world and how exactly it ended up being the way it is. We see things from the perspectives of Essun and her daughter Nassun, of course, they are the heart of the book.

The end of The Obelisk Gate had mother and daughter on a collision course (somewhat literally) and I wasn’t sure how the book would wrap up the story in a satisfying way because both characters were equally sympathetic, they’d both been through more than their fair share of horrible things. The conclusion was completely satisfying though, now that I’ve read it, I can’t imagine how else it would have ended.

Like the previous books, this book is sometimes agonizing to read, Much of fantasy focuses on the best things about people (honorable, idealistic, heroic, etc.) but this book does the opposite. It shows people at their worst, but not unrealistically so (I wouldn’t call it “grimdark”), and some of things that Essun and Nassun do and have done to them is quite unpleasant to read about. But there are still uplifting moments, and that’s even more hopeful than always seeing people as good because you see humans do good things even when everything around them is terrible.

N.K. Jemisin’s next project is apparently a contemporary Lovecraftian fantasy series set in New York, and I can’t wait for that to come out.


The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth, #3)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Book series review: Raven’s Shadow by Anthony Ryan

I’ve been meaning to read Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow series for a long time but kept putting it off because so many people said the second and third books didn’t live up to the promise of the first one. After reading The Waking Fire (the first book of his new series), I wanted more so I decided to finally make the plunge.

The first book, Blood Song, follows Vaelin Al Sorna from his initiation into the religious/militaristic Sixth Order at the age of ten through his meteoric rise to become the most famous (or infamous, depending on who you’re talking to) warrior in the known world. I have a bias towards fantasy books about school/training/coming of age and this is a great example of that sub-genre, similar to Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. Vaelin is a terrific protagonist, he’s a natural leader but works hard for what he gets, he never seems like a Mary Sue character despite the accolades he receives. The plot is fine but it is dwarfed by the great characterization and emotional arc.

The next two books, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire are a total change of pace, the story shifts to being about the events happening across the entire world and we get a bunch of new viewpoint characters. Vaelin is still among them, but he’s done most of his growing in the first book so his viewpoints are more boring – his role is now just being the wise mentor figure and/or fearsome enemy to everyone else in the story.

I’m conflicted about how I feel about this changed structure, it makes sense that the author wanted to tell a broader story about saving the world, but that makes the book seem more generic because the wonderful character arc of a single viewpoint character is what made it stand out in the first place. The new viewpoint characters are fine but they suffer in comparison to Vaelin because we can’t spend as much time with them – Vaelin got a whole book to himself – and so they seem much less fleshed out.

The way the story wrapped up in Queen of Fire definitely had problems, significant characters from previous books were dropped with no resolution of their fates, the main plot with the war felt more and more improbable and much too easily resolved, and overall, it just didn’t offer enough satisfaction. Knowing that this was the conclusion that was being set up made me like the previous books less. I think the series is worth reading for Blood Song, though.


Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (Raven's Shadow, #1)
Ace Books, 2013 | Buy the book


Book series review: The Dresden Files (1-15) by Jim Butcher

I’ve owned the first eight Dresden Files books for a couple of years now and I kept meaning to read them and never getting around to it. I did read the first book, Storm Front, a few years ago but didn’t love it enough to continue (I didn’t dislike it either, I just kept getting distracted by other books). I also haven’t been compelled by most urban fantasy that I’ve read so I figured the genre just wasn’t for me. One of my colleagues at work is a huge fan of the series, though, and talking about it with him nudged me into finally reading those eight books on my shelf… and then buying the next seven, and the anthology of Dresden stories, and all the Dresden graphic novels.

The Dresden Files is a series of novels featuring Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in Chicago. He’s basically a private investigator but he can do things that ordinary people can’t do. The world of the books is superficially identical to our own, but there is a thriving community of magic users and/or non-humans under the surface (faeries, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, gods, dragons, and so on, pretty standard for its genre). Of course all the cases that Dresden gets ends up involving magic in some way, and many of them come from his work as a consultant for the Chicago police department.

I stand by my original assessment of the first book – Storm Front is decent but it definitely feels like a debut novel. In comparison to the later books, Dresden’s character seems a little rough, like the author was trying out a couple of different personalities for him but hadn’t figured out who exactly he was yet. It’s a stereotypical pulpy police procedural – guy with special powers partnered with a spunky female cop solving a series of murders involving (among other things) gore and wild orgies. But I was prepared for that since I’d read it before and people on the internet said the series really hit its stride a couple of books in, so I kept reading.

The second book, Fool Moon was better than the first but didn’t quite have me drawn in yet (all the different types of werewolves showing up in a single story seemed contrived, among other issues). I don’t think I was eager to read more until the end of the third book, so far the series had just seemed like a run-of-the-mill procedural, but Grave Peril didn’t have Karrin Murphy (the female cop) in it much at all, showing that it wasn’t going to keep following the same format. And the ending showed that the series wasn’t afraid to take risks and change things up. I felt like I was actually getting to know the characters and that they were realistic and would grow over the books.

After that I was pretty much hooked. One of the things I didn’t like about previous urban fantasy that I’ve read was that they seemed to take more inspiration from mystery novels than fantasy. I love Agatha Christie, for example, but Miss Marple or Poirot don’t change very much over the course of their stories, the fun of the books is in the solving of the crime. My favorite genres are epic fantasy and science fiction and a large part of why I love them is that they build interesting worlds and have characters that often have to come of age or rise to the occasion; their emotional growth is an integral part of the story. The Dresden Files has the best of both worlds, it does have investigative elements, but Harry and all the supporting characters all change in response to the events around them and not always in good ways.

Harry is not a perfect character, he’s got serious flaws and he’s aware of some of them. He’s not an anti-hero but he doesn’t always do the right thing (there often isn’t even a right thing) and the books don’t sugarcoat that. The people around him seem just as real, I can’t think of a single character who hasn’t made a serious mistake. Even characters that seemed stereotypical when they were first introduced (e.g. the tough female cop, the perfect Christian knight, the organized crime boss) are completely altered now.

I’ve mentioned that the series isn’t afraid to change things up, but it takes it to a (good) extreme in the twelfth book, aptly titled Changes. It turns Harry’s life upside down and the books after it breathe new life into the series while still being familiar enough to be cozy. And it’s not just the characters that change, the world gets more dangerous over the course of the books (and not just because Harry learns more and becomes a stronger wizard), it’s clearly building up to a larger conflict. This makes sense given what the author has said about the series – there are going to be around 20 standalone “single case” books and then a “big apocalyptic trilogy” at the end.

The only downside to these books is that the series is probably not going to be finished for at least a decade or more, I’m glad I got into it after 15 of the books were already out. But it’s not like there’s a shortage of books to read while waiting.


Storm Front by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, #1)
Roc, 2000 | Buy the book


Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 20-26, 2017

Favorite Movies of the Week

The Hunt (2012)

I didn’t know anything about this movie before I watched it except that it was a critically acclaimed Danish movie starring Mads Mikkelsen (who is in a lot of great things, but I associate him most with his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Danish movie, the only reason I even heard about this one was because of a Reddit post.

Lucas is an elementary school teacher getting his life back together after his divorce. The kids at his school love him, he is beginning to date someone new, and his son wants to come and live with him. But when one of the kids he teaches makes up a story without knowing the implications of what she is saying, he’s falsely accused of molesting children and ends up being ostracized by almost everyone he knows.

This is a depressing movie but it’s exceptionally good. The way all the characters interacted with each other is infuriatingly accurate, from the well-intentioned but clearly incompetent psychologist to the indecisiveness of Klara’s father. Mads Mikkelsen is a spectacular actor and makes you intensely feel every emotion his character goes through. The kids in the movie are fantastic too, especially the girl who played Klara, she didn’t seem like she was acting. I don’t just want to single out the acting though, everything else about the movie was pretty much perfect, the directing, the atmosphere, the cinematography, the plot, the pacing… you get the idea.

The Ice Storm (1997)

I had never heard of this movie until I was looking through Ang Lee’s filmography recently. I’m a fan of Ang Lee (who isn’t?) so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he had made several movies that I hadn’t seen. This one in particular stood out for the great cast – Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Elijah Wood, and a bunch more.

The movie follows the Hood family and the people around them for a couple of days around Thanksgiving. Parents Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen) have been unhappy for a long time and find that they can’t keep ignoring their problems. Their kids have their own issues: Wendy is exploring her nascent sexuality at every opportunity, and Paul, her older brother, is focused on gaining the affections of a rich classmate from his prep school.

Ang Lee is amazing at getting subtle and complex performances from his actors and The Ice Storm tells a story that depends on that nuance. It reminded me of his “Father Knows Best” trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman), except with American suburban families instead of Chinese families. I’m surprised that this movie isn’t more well-known, I think if it was released now it would be widely praised (it still did win critical acclaim when it came out, Gene Siskel called it his favorite film of the year, but it doesn’t seem to be that well known).

Other Movies Watched

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

New York City yuppie Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) works as a fact checker for a magazine. His once perfect life has been falling apart after his mother dies and his wife leaves him. He’s been attempting to write a novel but can’t get anywhere with it, his boss at work is constantly frustrated with him, and he’s becoming increasingly dependent on cocaine to get through the day.

I was skeptical about Michael J. Fox starring in a drama since most of his movies from around the time were comedic to some extent. Bright Lights, Big City was actually a really good movie, though, and he was a big part of why it was good. His usual casual demeanor makes it seem even worse that his character is unhappy, unproductive, and addicted to drugs, treating it melodramatically wouldn’t have had the same impact. The situations he finds himself in are entirely his own doing, but you can’t help but root for him, and his eventual growth as a character feels like a huge relief. Also, the supporting cast is great, especially Kiefer Sutherland as Jamie’s hard-partying friend.

The Boondock Saints (1999)

After surviving a brush with Russian mobsters, Irish fraternal twins Connor and Murphy MacManus decide to take down organized crime in Boston. They are being pursued by an FBI agent who can’t decide whether to arrest them or hail them as heroes.

The Boondock Saints is extremely stylized and that’s what differentiates it from other action/vigilante movies. I’m not sure exactly how to describe the tone of the movie, the brothers believe that their actions are blessed by God and the movie takes their righteousness seriously. It’s violent, gory, and a lot of fun, sort of like a Tarantino movie. Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery make the MacManus brothers seem like nice guys even while they’re gunning down a bunch of people. The other characters are pretty funny too, but Willem Dafoe takes the cake as the curmudgeonly scenery-chewing Agent Smecker. It’s a ridiculous movie but I’m not surprised that it’s a cult classic.

Point Break (1991)

Rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) infiltrates the L.A. surfing scene in order to track down a gang of bank robbers. He ends up being more sucked into into the lifestyle than he originally thought, especially after meeting the charismatic surfer Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).

I thought this movie would be dumb fun just like the original Fast and the Furious movie, but once I got acclimatized to Keanu Reeves’ acting enough to take him seriously, it was better than I thought it would be (he makes it hard, though). It’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who’s made some great movies (like The Hurt Locker and Strange Days). Patrick Swayze is fantastic and the emotional arc of the movie wouldn’t have worked as well without his magnetic performance. Gary Busey as Utah’s partner Pappas was surprisingly great and he stole most scenes he was in. And of course there are a lot of great shots of waves and surfing that add a unique atmosphere to the movie.

Rules of Engagement (2000)

Rules of Engagement stars Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Hayes Hodges, a washed up military lawyer who is asked to defend his old friend and fellow officer Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) after he is accused of firing into a crowd of civilians that were protesting outside a U.S. embassy.

This movie reminded me of Courage Under Fire and A Few Good Men; military law movies seem like they were popular in the ’90s (this was released in 2000 but I think of anything pre-9/11 as the ’90s) although both of those were better. Rules of Engagement isn’t bad, most of it is decent, but it’s not very nuanced. Both lead actors do a good job, and it’s nice to see Samuel L. Jackson play a protagonist and not just a supporting character. I read that originally the events that led to Childers’ court martial were going to be left ambiguous but test audience’s reactions resulted in some scenes being added to the movie making what happened more explicit. I would have liked to watch that version of the movie.

Death Note (2017)

This movie was terrible and I had more to say about it than my usual 1-2 paragraphs, so I wrote a separate post for it, Movie review: Death Note (2017).

Movie review: Death Note (2017)

Death Note is about a Seattle high-school student, Light Turner, who finds a notebook (the titular Death Note) that gives its owner the ability to kill people simply by writing their name in it. He decides to use it to rid the world of criminals, but he soon attracts the interest of the world’s foremost detective, “L”, who is determined to catch him.

I’ve been anticipating this Death Note movie ever since I first heard about it. I’m a huge fan of the original anime, it has extremely compelling characters, fantastic pacing, and it’s probably the most clever show I’ve ever seen. I was interested in seeing how the characters would translate to an American setting (the movie is set in Seattle) and the casting of Willem Dafoe as the shinigami (death god) Ryuk was a great sign. And the movie is produced by Netflix, which has had a pretty good track record with original content.

Well, unfortunately this movie is terrible. It’s so bad that I’m doing my very first post reviewing only a single movie just so I can have more space to write about how much I hated it. I’m not usually so vehement about disliking a movie, I can usually find something to appreciate about it, but I can’t find much in this one. It’s not just a awful adaptation (I used to care about movie adaptations sticking to the source material but I’ve watched enough movies now to respect them as their own medium with different storytelling conventions), it’s a failure on every level.

One of the most interesting things about the original Death Note anime was that Light (Light Yagami, that is) was a genius. He does extremely well at anything he tries (he’s top ranked nationally in both standardized testing and tennis), he’s handsome and popular, so it makes sense that he has hubris enough to believe that he knows what’s best for the world. Throughout the show you both admire him and want him stopped immediately. His cat and mouse game with L (also a genius) has you fascinated from the very beginning because what they both do is entirely unpredictable but also makes total sense (and fits within the rules of the world).

I didn’t expect Light Turner to be exactly the same as Light Yagami, but I didn’t expect him to be so different either. He is an average whiny teenager who is bullied and there is zero reason to like him or even be sympathetic to him. He doesn’t even have much agency as a character, his actions are driven by either Ryuk’s urging or by the attention of a cheerleader that he has a crush on. None of the other characters are much better – Ryuk is probably the best one (Willem Dafoe is good like I predicted), but he’s not very nuanced either.

The over-simplification of the characters is a problem, but sadly it is not the only problem, or even most of the problem. The pacing is too fast in the beginning and too slow towards the end. The plot is more like a bunch of plotholes connected tenuously together (I’m not sure if that simile makes sense, but it still makes more sense than the movie). The tone jumps around all over the place from teen drama to horror to comedy to action (and none of it matches the tone of the source material). For some reason, there’s also gratuitous gore – the movie’s Light favors writing ridiculous death scenarios for his victims. I could maybe see an decent horror movie that could be re-edited from this movie, but movie that was released was not a decent anything. The actors do an okay job with what they’re given, but often what they’re given seems more contrived than a Disney Channel original movie.

The movie feels like the production team was given a one paragraph summary of the original manga/anime and that’s all the information they had to base their work on. Or maybe they thought that what made Death Note successful was its premise but it’s not. There are a million “what if” stories out there (that’s pretty much the definition of speculative fiction), and the idea of a teenager finding a Death Note is not that powerful on its own. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered if they didn’t stick to the source material if the movie had actually been good or interesting, but because it isn’t, it begs the question of why the people making it decided to explicitly get rid of all the advantages the source material came with.

If you haven’t watched the original anime, please don’t let this travesty of a movie put you off. I can’t comment on the manga since I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s excellent as well.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 13-19, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Dhobi Ghat (2010)

Dhobi Ghat follows the life of four interconnected people living in Mumbai. Shai (Monica Dogra) is a banker on sabbatical working on a project to chronicle the lives of Mumbai’s workers through photographs. Arun is a introverted artist looking for inspiration for her next project. Yasmin is a newly married immigrant from the state of Uttar Pradesh recording her experiences on a camcorder. Munna is a washerman (the titular “dhobi”) and rat-killer who aspires to become an actor.

If you’re familiar with indie movies, this is not a particularly special movie, it follows a few characters, it’s mostly slice-of-life but has characters that change subtly because of their interactions and experiences. But for an Indian movie, that makes it unique. It’s quiet, it has well-developed characters and nuanced acting, it offers an interesting perspective, and above all, it lacks melodrama. I’ve never seen an Indian movie that took that approach to storytelling (I haven’t seen many Indian indie films, though) and I want more! There were actually people I could identify with!

The score to this movie is fantastic too, it’s by two-time Academy Award winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (though I’m most familiar with his work on the video game The Last of Us). I felt like the tone and atmosphere of Dhobi Ghat reminded me of Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 Grams and Babel, I wonder how much of that was because all three movies were scored by the same person.

Other Movies Watched

Auntie Mame (1958)

I watched Auntie Mame a long time ago but didn’t remember much of it. When socialite Mame’s young nephew Patrick is orphaned at a young age, he comes to live with her. In order to keep Patrick from taking on too many of Mame’s free-spirited qualities, his father has appointed one of his stodgy business associates to be the executor of his estate and the boy’s trustee. The movie takes place over 18 years as Patrick grows up with both these influences in his life

Even though the story is structured around Patrick’s life, Mame is the protagonist. Rosalind Russell plays her part marvelously, she’s charming and exasperating at the same time, and you are both worried and glad that Patrick has her in his life. The movie is very well-paced, despite being almost two and a half hours long, it feels engrossing all the way through and you don’t know where the time went. The characters aren’t always consistent – for example, the events at the end are resolved much too neatly, but that’s one of the only things that dates the movie, otherwise it’s suited to modern sensibilities.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

We’re slowly watching our way through all the Oscar Best Picture winners and got one more off the list with Midnight Cowboy. A young Jon Voight plays small-town Texan hustler Joe Buck who moves to New York City and hopes to use his cowboy image to become a successful male prostitute. He meets with limited success but befriends Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small-time con artist.

I didn’t know anything about this movie before we watched it except that it starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman and that it won the Oscar for Best Picture. I had actually assumed it was a Western. It’s very good, especially for the time in which it was made. It explores things like prostitution, poverty, gay relationships, sexual abuse, mental illness and I think that’s significant for 1969. Jon Voight is charming as the naive and optimistic Joe and Dustin Hoffman is great at going from sleazy and lovable – you get to know his character at the same pace that Joe does and your opinion changes accordingly.

One of the most notable things about this movie is its use of montages and images that represent Joe’s thoughts and memories, I think this must have been one of the first movies to experiment with those narrative techniques. Those sequences feel a little rough, like a new idea that hasn’t been thought through fully and it’s interesting to see the genesis of a technique we take for granted now. Also a fun fact: this movie was the only X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar (although shortly after its release the rating criteria was changed and it was re-rated as R).

Rock of Ages (2012)

I’ve been looking forward to watching Rock of Ages ever since I ran into a clip of Tom Cruise singing Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead of Alive while watching YouTube videos. I’m a big fan of 80’s rock, and the idea of a musical featuring entirely 80’s rock sounded excellent to me. The movie centers around the story of a young couple, Drew and Sherrie, who are both aspiring singers but it features an ensemble cast with their own (mainly romantic) subplots.

There are a lot of great things about this movie but unfortunately it’s not a very good movie overall. My husband described it as “less than the sum of its parts”, and I think that’s a good description. The songs aren’t bad (Tom Cruise has a good singing voice, and all the songs he does are particularly good) and the movie does a decent job of contriving situations that the songs will work well in. The actors seem like they’re having fun, especially Alec Baldwin who is cast against type and Catherine Zeta-Jones who plays a delightful scenery-chewing villain. I found the actual story of the film incredibly trite, though, especially Drew and Sherrie’s romance. The play that the movie was based on had a story that sounded much more interesting, but I read that the movie’s director didn’t care for the play and made a lot of changes, which is a great pity.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Alien: Covenant is the latest movie in the Alien franchise and Ridley Scott’s first movie featuring the titular xenomorph since 1979. I enjoyed Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and this movie was touted as both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien. We follow the crew of the colonization ship Covenant who stop to investigate a signal that seems to be coming from a human source on an undiscovered habitable planet.

Of course this turns out to be a terrible idea and you already know what the outcome is going to be – monsters bursting out of people’s bodies and pretty much everyone dying. Alien and Prometheus succeeded in part because of their masterful suspense, which is completely absent in this film, you see everything coming ahead of time. Even the xenomorphs are shown in broad daylight. Plus the writing is bad – the characters make such monumentally stupid decisions that it makes it hard to invest in the movie because you can’t suspend your disbelief that far. However, it does do its job of connecting Prometheus into the continuity and offering more insight into the genesis of xenomorphs, and it’s still fun to watch.

The Best of Times (1986)

Jack Dundee (Robin Williams) is a bank manager haunted by the memory of a pass he missed in an high-school football game more than a decade ago – the only time his team ever came close to beating the neighboring town that has been their long-time rival. In an effort to move forward, he organizes a rematch and recruits former star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) to help bring the team together.

I was excited to watch this movie because I figured that anything with the two main characters played by Robin Williams and Kurt Russell had to be good. Unfortunately I was wrong. There isn’t anything hugely wrong with this movie, it’s just a mediocre comedy. Or maybe there is something wrong with it and the two lead actors’ performance elevated it to mediocre. In any case, the result is forgettable.

Save the Last Dance (2001)

Sara (Julia Stiles) used to be a passionate ballet dancer, but after her mother dies on her way to attending Sara’s Juilliard audition, she gives up dancing. She moves to her father’s apartment in Chicago and starts dating Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who helps her rekindle her dream of continuing ballet at Juilliard. But they also have to deal with the social consequences of being an interracial couple.

I’m usually a fan of teen coming-of-age movies, but I didn’t find Save the Last Dance very compelling. The core of the movie is the relationship between Sara and Derek, but I didn’t think the actors had good chemistry and the progression of their romance is non-existent – they seem to be either instantly in love or arguing just because the plot wanted them to. The characters surrounding them are pretty inconsistent too.

“The Witchwood Crown” by Tad Williams

I was really looking forward to The Witchwood Crown after I got back into the world of Osten Ard earlier this year with Tad Williams’ excellent short novel The Heart of What Was Lost. It’s properly doorstop-sized and it follows a bunch of characters from the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy!

It’s been about thirty years since the events of the previous books and Osten Ard, ruled by High King and Queen Simon and Miriamele,  has been enjoying peace and stability. Things have been growing steadily worse as the terrible war of the Storm King begins to fade from memory – several kingdoms are facing internal political strife, contact with the Sithi has been lost, and Utuk’ku, the dark queen of the Norns, has woken and once again plots the destruction of humanity.

We follow several protagonists across Osten Ard as events come to a head: Osten Ard’s monarchs (and our old friends) Simon and Miriamele, their grandchildren Prince Morgan and Princess Lillia, other people from the Hayholt including the chancellor Lord Pasevalles, court members (and also old friends) Tiamak and Count Eolair, Norn engineer Viyeki (who we last met in The Heart of What Was Lost), his human concubine Tzoja and half-human daughter Nezeru, a couple of characters from the grasslands of Thrithings, a servant of the Duchess of Nabban, a mysterious Norn-hunter named Jarnulf… I might be forgetting some. This is an epic story affecting the whole world and it’s told through people living through events in a bunch of different places, and only the readers know the whole story of how they may all be connected.

I expected to plow through this book and stay up all night reading it but it was actually slow going. For the first few hundred pages of the book, it didn’t seem like anything was happening, I felt like I was reading a slice of life story, except not as interesting because it was actually about twenty different slice of life stories and we didn’t stick with any viewpoint for enough time for me to develop a real investment in the characters. The last third of the book is much better paced; things start to change rapidly, we get answers to burning questions, and we start to see all those disparate threads come together.

Another thing that disappointed me was how the characters from the first trilogy had aged and how that impacted the plot. Simon and Miri are old and grief-stricken from the loss of their son a few years prior to the events of the book, they seem almost unforgivably gullible to have not noticed all the trouble brewing around them – not a good quality for monarchs. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is utterly insufferable, he’s spoiled and petulant, and Simon and Miri don’t seem to know how to deal with him at all – everything they do is obviously going to fail, and I don’t know how they don’t realize that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, in fact it’s probably realistic that Simon and Miri aren’t going to be good at politicking or dealing with people that don’t have the inherent drive to be good (like Morgan), but it’s not very much fun to read about our old heroes being incompetent.

Other than those two (admittedly major) gripes, I thought The Witchwood Crown was a pretty good book. It’s certainly more nuanced the the original trilogy. I’m especially glad that the Norns are being given some definition and not just treated as faceless villains; between Tzoja, Nezeru, and Viyeki, we get a variety of perspectives into their culture and motivations. The prose is good, of course. And by the end of the book, I was intrigued by most of the plotlines enough to eagerly await the next book.  I hope it has better pacing and more competent characters, though.


The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams (The Last King of Osten Ard, #1)
DAW Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 6-12, 2017

I usually order the movies I review in descending order of how good I think they were. Unlike most weeks, this week’s movies were all really good, so take this order with a grain of salt.


Favorite Movie of the Week

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive and “fixer” at a movie studio in the 50s. As he considers a lucrative job offer with much saner hours and duties, Mannix has to deal with a dozen different impending disasters involving both issues with movie production and the personal lives of his contracted movie stars.

I used to not be big fans of the Coen Brothers (I know they’re incredible directors but I didn’t connect with a lot of their stories), but the more films I watch, the better I like them. Hail Caesar! is a lot of fun, especially for someone who watches movies as much as I do, it’s a real tribute to Hollywood. The cast is one of the best parts, even minor roles are played by terrific actors, and it includes George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and a lot more. Plus Alden Ehrenreich, who I’d never seen in anything before but now I’m a fan and I think he can actually play young Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars movie (I’ve been skeptical about anyone being able to pull that off).

I liked pretty much everything about this movie – it was well-paced, well-acted, funny, had a great atmosphere, and had a lot of variety (I especially loved the musical that Channing Tatum’s character was filming). I thought George Clooney was especially amazing, he played a complete airhead so well that I kept forgetting who he was.

Other Movies Watched

Take Shelter (2011)

Curtis (Michael Shannon) starts to have intense dreams depicting an apocalypse and has to decide whether to protect his home and family or to seek treatment for mental illness. This movie was written/directed by Jeff Nichols (Loving, Midnight Special), who I was already a fan of before this movie cemented it. Most of the drama in this movie comes from Curtis’s internal state and Michael Shannon is amazing at generating real tension just from a facial expression. Jessica Chastain is great as Curtis’ wife as well. This isn’t relevant to most people but Take Shelter was set and filmed within 20 miles of where I live, there was even a scene filmed in a local Oberlin shop!

Matilda (1996)

I’ve seen Matilda before and I love the book it’s based on (and Roald Dahl’s writing in general), so this was a comfort-watch. Matilda is a young genius with an obnoxiously awful family who mostly just ignore her and make fun or her. When she’s finally allowed to go to school, she finds friends and a lovely teacher, but makes an enemy of the loathsome principal, Miss Trunchbull, who hates children and is happy to show it. At first Matilda is helpless but eventually discovers that she can fight back pretty effectively. The movie doesn’t exactly follow the book but it gets the spirit across and it’s one of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations. Danny DeVito is the director, the narrator, and the actor playing Matilda’s dad and does all three well.

The Descendants (2011)

After his wife is seriously injured in an accident, Hawaiian lawyer and land baron Matt King (George Clooney) must reconnect with his two daughters and come to terms with his less-than-ideal relationship with his wife. George Clooney is fantastic in pretty much everything he’s in, and he was the perfect person to play King, he imbues him with enough warmth and cluelessness that you can’t help but sympathize with him even as he tells you he’s been avoiding his family for years. The Descendants fits the pattern of quirky family dramedy quite well but it’s really great at it and I’m already looking forward to watching it again someday.

Rudo y Cursi (2008)

We are fans of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and decided to watch this movie purely because they both star in it (and it’s directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s brother). They play two brothers who work on a banana plantation until they are discovered by a talent scout and given the opportunity to become professional soccer players. Going into the glamorous world of soccer isn’t an easy thing though, and the siblings’ love/hate relationship only complicates matters. This is a witty comedy that finds humor in believable characters getting themselves into believable situations. It pokes fun at a lot of things – soccer, celebrities, corruption, gangsters, multi-level marketing, and more, and it’s all genuinely funny. Apparently this is one of Mexico’s highest grossing movies and I can see why.

Short Term 12 (2013)

After watching Room recently, I read that Brie Larson was cast on the strength of her performance in indie movie Short Term 12 so I wanted to watch it. Grace (Brie Larson) works at a residential treatment facility for troubled kids alongside her boyfriend. Her childhood was pretty screwed up and she’s able to relate to and form a good rapport with the kids that she supervises, but she still has issues reconciling with her own life. Short Term 12 is mostly flat and unpretentious and all the actors do a great job. I thought it captured the atmosphere of the facility well. I thought things wrapped up a little too neatly at the end given the messiness portrayed beforehand but that’s only a minor flaw.

Wild (2014)

Wild is based on the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who set out to hike solo for over 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail after her marriage ends badly. Wikipedia describes this as a “survival” film, which brings to mind movies like 127 Hours or Everest, but this is nothing like those, it’s a story about self-discovery. Reese Witherspoon plays the main character and Laura Dern plays her mom; they both picked up Oscar nominations for their roles for good reason. I enjoyed the unique structure of this movie, we see pieces of Cheryl’s past as she thinks about them and they’re often not complete scenes. I thought it was a very natural way of showing what someone was thinking without seeming like exposition.