Weekly Movie Reviews: May 28-Jun 3, 2017

The Fighter (2010)

I’ve enjoyed director David O. Russell’s other movies (Three Kings, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy) quite a bit, so I was pretty excited about watching this movie. I was not disappointed.

The Fighter is biographical sports movie about boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Micky is managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother, former professional boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). As he keeps ending losing the fights they secure for him, he realizes that he needs to choose between his career and his family, as painful as that may be.

As usual, Christian Bale steals every scene he’s in as the crack addicted Eklund who spends his days making trouble and talking up his former glory. This is really Mark Wahlberg’s movie though, and he’s great at playing the sympathetic underdog. I also liked that the movie ended on a high note without losing any complexity – often movies that deal with family conflict end up being too saccharine and neat, but this wasn’t one of those.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence (in her breakout role) as Ree, a tough teenager from a poverty-stricken family who needs to find her missing father in order to avoid her family being evicted from their home. It makes total sense why she was cast as Katniss in the Hunger Games movies after this performance, her character in this movie is very similar (dealing with poverty, taking care of her family because her mother has checked out mentally, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe). It does pack a lot more punch because this seems like a real story set in our world, and it’s scary to be exposed to a world of such uncertainty and loss. This isn’t always a pleasant movie to watch, but it’s well worth it.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

This movie tells the story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician who contracted AIDS, and his business (the titular Dallas Buyers Club) which helped make medication that hadn’t gone through the long FDA approval process available to dying patients. Matthew McConaughey (who plays Woodroof) and Jared Leto (who plays trans woman and fellow AIDS patient Rayon) absolutely steal every scene that they are in. The movie reminded me a little bit of Erin Brockovich in its style and tone, although the content is very different. I also appreciated that the movie wasn’t on a crusade for one side or another, it did not portray what Ron was doing as noble or purely altruistic. Ron is definitely the protagonist and he believes in what he’s doing, but it also shows the other side, such as Ron having medical issues because of untested new drugs.

127 Hours (2010)

Based on a true story, 127 Hours is about canyoneer Aron Ralston who was trapped by a falling boulder for over 5 days and ended up cutting off half his arm to escape. It’s a pretty intense and sometimes unpleasant movie, but it’s very good. James Franco plays Aron Ralston and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Danny Boyle has the tough job of making a movie about a guy who doesn’t move for over five days interesting, and he rises to the challenge with aplomb. He uses memories and hallucinations (which the real Ralston describes as highly accurate) to keep things paced well, and he utilizes interesting techniques like split screens to keep your attention focused. This movie might make you queasy if you’re squeamish, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Chronicle (2012)

I’d heard great things about Josh Trank’s debut, Chronicle, for a very long time but we only just got around to watching it. It’s a found footage movie about three high school boys that find a mysterious object in an underground cave and end up getting superpowers. It ends up being a somewhat typical superhero movie, but the perspective it’s told from makes it unique. I was hoping it would end up being more of a coming of age story that happened to involve superpowers, I think that would have made it even better. That’s not the route it took, but it’s still a terrific and original film.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

This movie is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who was a terrible but beloved singe who gave many performances, including one at Carnegie Hall. Meryl Streep plays the main character with pathos (and picked up her 20th Oscar nomination for it). Her Florence is sad and somewhat delusional, but she’s also passionate and generous and you can see why so many people are willing to lie to her just to see her happy. Hugh Grant is also terrific in his role as Florence’s husband – they have a complicated relationship and he makes it look easy. The end of the movie was a little too dramatic for my taste and seemed to undermine the characters it had built up, but overall I enjoyed the movie.

Public Enemies (2009)

I was sure I’d like this movie since Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) directed it, but I found myself underwhelmed. Johnny Depp plays famed bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with tracking him down. The acting was good, and the movie was clearly made with attention to detail, but I couldn’t get invested in either of the main characters and I didn’t care what happened to them. The ending seemed to want me to feel a lot of emotions that the rest of the movie failed at setting up. The most compelling character was Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie, played by Marion Cotillard but the movie is not really about her.

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope become an unexpected favorite of mine and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by her. It seems like she writes about people with extraordinary abilities living in the modern world (under her Claire North pen name, anyway, I haven’t read her other work), and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August also follows that pattern.

Harry August is what’s known as a kalachakra or an ouroboran – whenever he dies, he ends up being reborn as the exact same person in the exact same time, and he repeats his life over and over again. As the name of the book implies, we follow Harry through his first fifteen lives. It’s written like a memoir, it’s in first person, and tends to jump around all over the place, just like a person telling a story.

One of the things I loved about both The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this book is the way that the person’s abilities are explored. I’ve read/watched many, many books and movies about people with unique abilities, and almost no one is portrayed as using them in a realistic way, and the psychological implications of the powers are rarely explored, too. Other than these Claire North books, the only other portrayal that makes sense to me is Steven Gould’s Jumper series. The Cronus Club and the kind of amenities they provide for their members, and most of the the ways that Harry spends his lives make total sense – I could see myself doing that, too.

Even though Harry August is special, the book is not really about that, it’s a fairly simple story with a fantastic backdrop. I don’t want to say more about the overall plot because the slow reveal is part of what makes the book great. The first half of the book seems to be Harry just recollecting random snippets of his lives, but it all falls into place in the second half. That made for a focused and tight story, which I did enjoy but part of me also wished the whole book was Harry just talking about his various lives without much of a point because that was so interesting too.

I’m excited that I have two more Claire North novels to go – Touch and The End of the Day. And after that, maybe I’ll start reading her Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin books!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Redhook, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Summer Dragon” by Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood is one of my favorite fantasy/science-fiction illustrators, and I especially love the covers that he did for the Memoirs of Lady Trent series (which are all about dragons – see here and here for cover images!) When I found out that he was writing a new fantasy series featuring dragons, I was pretty excited to read it.

Growing up on a dragon aerie, Maia has long looked forward to having a dragon of her own, and this might be the year. She’s old enough to start training a dragon, and there are more dragons qits than are needed to fill the usual government quota – even if they are at war. The routine yearly visit from the Dragonry to pick up their qits gets complicated when Maia sees the Summer Dragon, a symbol of an ancient faith suppressed by the empire. And to make things worse, the empire’s enemies are targeting aeries, so Maia’s home has suddenly become a dangerous place to be.

It took me a while to get into this book (as with most books written from a first-person perspective), but I ended up liking it quite a bit. Maia is a terrific protagonist, she’s smart, stubborn, and brave. Her stubbornness drives much of the story, and sometimes it makes her a little bit insufferable, but that’s okay because most people are. We see all the other characters from her perspective so they’re not as developed as her, but they’re still fairly nuanced. Some characters seem like standard archetypes at first but end up surprising you later.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding, there are layers of history that all interact with each other in a realistic way, and that makes the world feel lived in, rather than just being there to support the story. There’s a lot of political intrigue, which I love in fantasy, and I thought it was well done here. The plot is mostly predictable, but there are a couple of interesting turns that I didn’t see coming. One of the things I appreciated was that even though the book featured a teenage protagonist growing up in an isolated area of the world, Maia didn’t actually have to leave home or go on a long journey to find adventure, she did it while having her home and family nearby. Oh, and of course I have to mention the illustrations, there are several of them and they’re by the author, so they’re fantastic.

I’m looking forward to reading further books in the series. I hope the next book comes out soon!

The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood (The Evertide, #1)
DAW Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 21-27, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun is adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard about Jim Graham, a boy who ends up going from living in luxury in Shanghai to being separated from his family and becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp for years. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg, who outdoes his usually brilliant self.

Jim is played by a 12-year-old Christian Bale, and he’s probably the best child actor I’ve ever seen. He perfectly plays a sheltered and precocious kid who tries to survive the (often horrific) events around him without anyone to support him, doing his best to stay sane with a sort of nervous energy. There’s something extra stark about viewing war through a child’s eyes – Jim doesn’t really care who wins or what the political implications are, or if something is morally right, he just wants his life to be predictable and at least living in an internment camp gives him that. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially Jim’s quasi-protectors, John Malkovich as Basie and Nigel Havers as Dr. Rawlins.

Spielberg’s best known movies about World War II are Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and those are both very good, but I think Empire of the Sun outdoes them both for its unique perspective and near-flawless execution.

Other Movies Watched

The Prestige (2006)

I loved The Prestige when I first watched it, but I barely remembered it. After re-watching it, I think it might be Christopher Nolan’s best movie so far. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are stage magicians and bitter rivals, both fiercely dedicated to their craft. When Borden debuts a new trick that Angier cannot figure out, he goes to extreme lengths to do better than him. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman do an amazing job of playing their insanely obsessive characters, and David Bowie is fantastic as Nikola Tesla. I don’t want to spoil any of the revelations in this movie, but I think they’re all genius (I know it’s from the book, which I also liked, but the way they’re revealed in the movie is genius, too). This is the first time I’d watched the movie after I knew what was going on, and there’s a lot of foreshadowing that I didn’t notice the first time around – that’s part of what makes the movie so good, you’d just be annoyed if things came out of nowhere.

Logan (2017)

Ever since I watched the trailer for Logan (with that great Johnny Cash cover of Hurt), I’ve been really excited to watch it. It didn’t look anything like any other X-Men movie (or any superhero movie, really). It ended up being even better than I wanted it to be, it’s definitely one of the best superhero movies ever made. It’s set in a 2029 where mutants have stopped being born, Logan works as a luxury chauffeur, and Professor X has a degenerative brain disease and is in hiding. And the movie isn’t about changing the past, or fighting a big bad enemy that wants to destroy the world, it’s an intimate drama about a slowly dying Logan having to protect a new mutant from an organization that wants her dead. Every detail about the movie is terrific – the acting (including the young girl who plays X-23, Dafne Keen), the atmosphere, the pacing, the action. Watch it, it’s the perfect send-off for Jackman’s Wolverine, and just might be the first superhero movie to make you cry.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

I’m a big fan of Westerns, but I hadn’t watched many of the classics from the 50s and 60s. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the titular trio – a bounty hunter, an assassin, and an outlaw. They’re all after a treasure buried in a remote cemetery and are racing to get there. But it’s the middle of the Civil War, and they have to get past both Union and Confederate troops, as well as each other. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, it’s slow and takes a while to build up, but it’s an epic. Most Westerns I’ve watched centered around a hero saving a town from a villain, so it was nice to see a different kind of story – with such great characters too! The incorporation of the Civil War was good to see too, it helped ground the movie in history. I’m looking forward to watching more of Sergio Leone’s work.

Singles (1992)

Singles is a romantic comedy about a group of 20-somethings who live in the same apartment complex in Seattle. It reminded me a lot of Reality Bites, it was about slightly older people, but it had a similar structure of focusing on a single couple (Linda and Steve, played by Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott) while also telling the stories of a few of their friends. I’ve enjoyed most of Cameron Crowe’s movies, and I thought this one was pretty good, too. All of the characters are different in terms of profession and lifestyle and that made the movie seem like it was telling a larger story about a generation (although the secondary characters were more dramatic than in Reality Bites). Also, Matt Dillon’s character is in a band, and the rest of the band is played by members of Pearl Jam (before they got famous), so that was fun to watch.

Battle for Terra (2007)

I haven’t watched a lot of indie animation, so I was looking forward to watching Battle for Terra. Our protagonist is a rebellious alien girl, Mala, who lives an idyllic life on her home planet. Her home is suddenly invaded by an unfamiliar hostile force – humans (who are looking for a new home to terraform after destroying Earth, Mars, and Venus). Both species require different atmospheres, so a war seems inevitable, unless Mala and the human pilot she saved can figure out a way to stop it. This movie is pretty simple and can get preachy on occasion, but I thought it was really cute. It doesn’t shy away from depicting war as horrible, but it also shows people (sentient beings?) rising above their instincts. Plus, it’s original sci-fi with interesting worldbuilding!

The Wizard of Lies (2017)

Robert De Niro stars in this TV movie about Bernie Madoff, a legendary stockbroker and investment advisor who perpetrated the largest financial fraud in history. I was hoping to see details about the fraud, but the movie ended up being more of a family drama, and it focused mostly on the week the scandal broke, with some flashbacks. The cast is great, but they don’t have that much to do, it seemed almost like a documentary, I guess that requires its own kind of good acting, though. Overall, The Wizard of Lies didn’t make much of an impression on me, good or bad.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I’ve been skeptical about the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast ever since it was announced, even though I enjoyed the recent live-action Jungle Book. The animated version is one of my husband’s favorite Disney movies, so we’ve watched it together a couple of times. The remake is definitely well-made, it has great production value, the music is mostly good (Emma Watson was obviously auto-tuned, which was hard to listen to), and the acting was good, but I didn’t think there was any good creative reason for the film to be remade. The Jungle Book actually told its story in a new way, but this movie was too faithful to the original to be interesting. Also, the auto-tuning was awful – they should have either cast someone who could actually sing, not auto-tuned Emma Watson (even if that made the song sound different), or dubbed Emma Watson’s singing voice.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 14-20, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

I watched Kung Fu Panda a long time ago and remember really enjoying it. I don’t expect a lot from American animated movies that aren’t made by Disney, Pixar, or Laika, but I think this movie is definitely up there with the best.

Po (Jack Black) is a panda that dreams of being an amazing kung-fu warrior just like his heroes the Furious Five who protect the valley he lives in. When the masters of the Jade Temple announce that the legendary Dragon Warrior is about to be proclaimed, Po eagerly rushes to see which of the Furious Five it will be. To everyone’s surprise, Master Oogway chooses Po, who is completely unprepared for his daydreams to actually come true. He has to master kung fu in a very short time, because Tai Lung, once the Jade Temple’s best student, has escaped his prison and is heading to the valley for revenge, and only the Dragon Warrior can stop him.

On the surface, Kung Fu Panda is a typical story – an unlikely hero pushes past his circumstances and saves the day. However, it’s got great worldbuilding (it takes its setting of ancient China seriously), the characters are heartwarming and fit the setting (Po’s relationship with his dad is great, the Furious Five take Po’s ascension especially well), and the multiple characters actually grow over the movie. Plus the cast is great! Jack Black is fantastic as Po, but we also have Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and a bunch of other great actors.

Other Movies Watched

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Po and the Furious Five are back, this time heading out of their valley to defend China from Lord Shen, a bitter peacock prince that wants to obsolete kung fu and conquer the whole country. Po has accepted his role as the Dragon Warrior, but he keeps being distracted by Lord Shen’s insignia bringing up painful childhood memories. Unlike a lot of sequels, most of the things that are good about the first movie stay that way – Po has a good character growth arc, the rest of the characters continue to be heartwarming, and we see the worldbuilding expand into greater China. The cast continues to be terrific as well with some great new additions – Gary Oldman as Lord Shen, Michelle Yeoh as the Soothsayer, and Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme as other kung fu masters.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

I didn’t love this one as much as the first two, but it was still very good. Po is reunited with his birth father, Li Shan (played excellently by Bryan Cranston), but he can’t enjoy it for long since Kai (J.K. Simmons), an ancient foe of Master Oogway, has returned from the spirit realm and intends to absorb the power of every kung fu master alive. Po’s arc this time focuses on learning to be a teacher in addition to being a warrior, and the mythology of the world is expanded further with the addition of the spirit realm. I was worried that the addition of Po’s real father would take away from his relationship with his adopted father (which has been one of the cornerstones of the movies), but the movie handles it very well.

American Psycho (2000)

A black comedy about Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), an investment banker in New York with a uncontrollable urge to violently murder people. I can’t imagine anyone other than Christian Bale in the part – he portrays Bateman perfectly, going from vacuous charm to quivering rage in minutes. Don’t expect this movie to tell a tidy story – it’s unclear if Bateman is even who he says he is or if the events of this movie are happening outside his own head, and the ending is a little abrupt. This movie is also not for the squeamish, describing the violence as gratuitous is an understatement, and if you took it seriously, it would be horrifying (Wikipedia calls it a horror movie, in fact). I don’t think I’m doing a very good job reviewing the movie, and I’m not sure how to do it any better, but it’s definitely worth watching.

Money for Nothing (1993)

Based on the true story of Joey Coyle, an unemployed Philadelphia dockworker that found $1.2 million in cash in the street (it had fallen out of an armored truck) and decided to keep it. The police get closer and closer to finding him, and he becomes increasingly desperate to keep the money somehow. I didn’t expect a lot from this movie but it turned out to be pretty decent. John Cusack does almost too good of a job playing someone that’s permanently on edge, it was uncomfortable to watch him sometimes. This is one of those movies that you know is good but never want to watch again, primarily because it portrays Coyle’s predicament so well that it just makes you anxious the whole time.

Cars 2 (2011)

I’d heard terrible things about Cars 2 but I thought they had to be wrong. People didn’t like the original Cars as much as Pixar’s other movies, but I loved it, so I figured the same would apply to the sequel. Unfortunately, I was wrong – this is definitely one of Pixar’s rare missteps. The protagonist is the dumb-but-affable Mater (the tow truck from Radiator Springs), who gets mixed up with some British spies and ends up having to save the world (and his friends) from an evil conspiracy, all without knowing what he’s doing (literally). As a standalone movie, it wasn’t bad – the spy stuff is done fairly well, but Mater is a really annoying character, and there’s none of the heart from Cars. Even Lightning is reduced to a few stock catchphrases. I really hope Cars 3 will be better.

Batman and Robin (1997)

The fourth (and thankfully last) movie of the 80s-90s Batman film franchise, Batman and Robin probably shouldn’t have even been made. Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher returns, but we have yet another actor playing Batman – George Clooney – who is utterly wasted in the role and doesn’t seem to have any personality. This movie also features Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), who I found supremely annoying and seemed shoehorned into the movie. The villains are Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whose scenery chewing may be the only saving grace of the movie (especially Mr. Freeze’s puns) – but really, it’s just bad all the way through. No wonder everyone loved Batman Begins so much after this!

“Assassin’s Fate” by Robin Hobb

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the previous books in the Realm of the Elderlings series.

Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books are one of my favorite fantasy series’ ever, and the ones featuring Fitz even more so. Assassin’s Fate is the ninth book featuring Fitz (and the sixteenth book overall), so I already knew what it was going to be like and that I would love it.

Assassin’s Fate picks up where Fool’s Quest left off – Fitz and the Fool are in Kelsingra on their way to Clerres (the home of the White Prophets and their Servants), seeking revenge for Bee’s abduction and presumed death. Bee is also on her way to Clerres, dragged along against her will by the Servant Dwalia. This has been the longest journey in the books so far, but the events of this book makes it all worth it. We’ve been seeing the corruption of Clerres and its effect on the Fool for many, many books now, and the conclusion of that arc is deeply fulfilling.

I’ve been worried about where Fitz would end up in this book, I intuited that it would be the end of his story (although I was desperately hoping I’d be wrong) because of the title of the book as well as some of Bee’s dreams from previous books. I don’t want to the spoil the book so I’m not going to confirm or deny my suspicions, but I will say that the ending is more than satisfactory, and that this is one of the rare books that I’ll admit made me cry (and it’s not just me, the Assassin’s Fate discussion on the Robin Hobb subreddit was full of people saying they cried).

I’m not sure what Hobb is writing next, but I hope it’s another book in this world. I’ll happily read whatever she writes though.

Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (The Fitz and the Fool, #3)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 7-13, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Science of Sleep (2006)

We started watching The Science of Sleep in 2015, but I hadn’t watched a lot of movies then, and its weirdness made me uncomfortable. Watching it now, I’m not sure why I didn’t like it, it’s surreal, but it’s really a great movie.

Stéphane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a young man that has trouble telling his (extremely vivid) dreams from reality. He has just moved back to his childhood home in France from Mexico based on his mother’s promise of a creative job. The job turns out to be mundane typesetting work and no one appreciates his talent, leaving him unhappy. He also ends up with a crush on Stéphanie, his neighbor. All of this stress and insecurity makes his dream vs. reality issues worse.

I can’t imagine anyone else playing Stéphane other than Gael Garcia Bernal, it would be too easy to make him creepy or sad, but he’s a perfect mix of adorable, poignant, and intense. The film seamlessly shifts from reality to dream, and the way the dreams are portrayed is truly imaginative, with some extremely memorable sequences. I highly recommend this movie.

Other Movies Watched

Annie Hall (1977)

Alvy “Max” Singer (Woody Allen, also the director of the movie) is a neurotic comedian who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, Annie Hall. He tries to figure out what went wrong, and we see the history of their relationship, and his prior relationships. Just thinking about this movie makes me feel neurotic! Allen perfectly captures the minutiae of a real relationship with all the insecurity and awkwardness of first getting started, the routine it settles into, the slow drift of growing apart without even realizing. Alvy’s character drove me crazy but only because he was so realistic. I’d never seen anything by Woody Allen before watching this movie, but I’m sure I’ll be watching a lot more of his work.

The Assassin (2015)

The Assassin is a Taiwanese period drama – sort of a wuxia movie, but eschewing many of the conventions of the genre. The titular assassin is Nie Yinniang, a young woman who shows mercy and fails to assassinate her designated target. In order to overcome her weakness, her master sends her back to her family with a new mission – to kill the governor of her province who also happens to be the cousin she was betrothed to as a child. You don’t really know what’s going on in this movie, it drops you into a complicated story without any explanations, and a lot of things have to be inferred from context (I’m sure I missed a lot of things, not being very familiar with the genre or Chinese culture in general). But it’s a beautiful, slow, and quiet movie, and it’s one of those rare movies where you don’t need to understand exactly what’s happening to appreciate it.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

I don’t usually enjoy comedies, but I remember loving Tropic Thunder when I first watched it eight or nine years ago. It held up better than I thought it would. The movie is about a bunch of actors making a Vietnam war movie who accidentally stumble into a real battle with a drug kingpin’s forces and have to rely on their acting skills to help them survive. The movie starts off with a few fake trailers and advertisements as a way to introduce the main characters, and they’re hilarious. It continues to parody the movie industry throughout, helped by some great performances, especially by Tom Cruise as a fat, balding, and greedy studio executive, and Robert Downey Jr. playing a dedicated Australian method actor who is playing a black sergeant in the movie. I can’t really say that it has heart, but maybe I like it so much because it pokes fun at movies so effectively but also so lovingly.

Reality Bites (1994)

Reality Bites follows a group of young college graduates in the 1990s as they try to make their way in the world. It focuses mainly on Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and her best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), although their friends Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) and Sammy (Steve Zahn) are a big part of the movie too. Each of the friends have their own issues – Lelaina is an aspiring filmmaker who can’t find a job that takes advantage of her talents, Troy is a musician who doesn’t take anything seriously, Vickie has a series of one-night stands and is terrified of contracting AIDS, and Sammy is gay and afraid to come out. This movie is one of the most realistic depictions of the 1990s that I’ve seen and it’s great for that reason. Ben Stiller makes his directorial debut with this movie, and even though I usually associate him with comedy, this is really not a comedic movie (and Stiller plays a great supporting character as an earnest yuppie). The only complaint I have about this movie is that although the characters were realistic for most of it, the ending seemed a little too much like wish-fulfillment.

Fences (2016)

A movie adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences focuses on the life of Troy Maxson (played by Denzel Washington, also the director of the movie), a working class man living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy is far from perfect, but he makes a significant impact on the lives of those around him. The cast of this movie does a tremendous job, the acting is nuanced and will make you feel a lot of things all at once. However, I didn’t enjoy this movie because it is so clearly adapted from a play that you wonder why they bothered to film it. It mostly takes place on a single set (Troy’s home and backyard), and it doesn’t take advantage of any of the unique things about film.

Guarding Tess (1994)

Nicolas Cage plays secret service agent Doug Chesnic whose current assignment is guarding ex-first lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). Tess is beloved by the public but she’s an absolute pain to work for, she delights in breaking security rules and treating Doug like a domestic servant. Through the course of the movie, they slowly learn to get along with each other. Most of this movie was pretty cute, sort of like Driving Miss Daisy. Both Cage and MacLaine do an excellent job making the audience care about the central relationship. However, the movie is ruined by a nonsensical and melodramatic finale which completely changes the tone of the movie.

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever is the third movie in the 80s-90s Batman film franchise. Joel Schumacher takes over directing duties from Tim Burton, and Val Kilmer replaces Michael Keaton as Batman. This movie also introduces Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell. I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, but it’s pretty bad. The loss of Tim Burton means that his signature creepy style (which didn’t quite mesh with Batman, in my opinion) is toned down significantly, but his worldbuilding is also lost. There’s a lot more campy drama and the plot’s pace picks up, but the movie doesn’t make any sense (we watched the deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray, and they made the movie make a bit more sense, but that doesn’t count). Val Kilmer’s Batman isn’t nearly as good as Michael Keaton’s, he’s too intense and the rest of the movie doesn’t match that style. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones are clearly having fun playing the villains, but they’re pretty cartoon-like and not very compelling.

“City of Miracles” by Robert Jackson Bennett

I enjoyed the first two Divine Cities books (see my reviews of City of Stairs and City of Blades) so I was looking forward to see how City of Miracles wrapped up the story.

This series changes protagonists in every installment, and this one is narrated by ex-spy and ex-royalty Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who was a secondary character in both the previous books. After the events of City of Blades, Sigrud has been working menial jobs and trying to stay hidden, waiting for Shara to find him somehow and give him a new assignment. When Shara is suddenly assassinated, he gains a purpose at last – finding Shara’s killer – but following that trail tumbles him into a covert war against a angry young god.

Just like the earlier two books, this one tells a self-contained story. It also wraps up the overarching plot arc of the six original Divinities in a satisfying manner. I wasn’t even sure what the overarching plot arc was, since the books seem designed to be standalones, but it was obvious by the end of the book and a lot of things from earlier made sense in retrospect.

I didn’t find Sigrud to be a particularly compelling character in the last two books so I was dreading his point of view a little bit. I should have trusted the author, though, because Sigrud from the inside is quite different from observing him through other characters’ eyes. We get to see what goes through his head when other characters only see him being silent and emotionless, and he’s much more sympathetic than I originally gave him credit for. I was similarly skeptical about the idea of Shara being dead (especially offscreen!), but the author handled that very well, too.

One of the things I love most about these books is the world – the Divinities and the way they manifest are unique and weird and wonderful. City of Miracles expands our understanding of the world and the mechanics of how the divine powers work even more, which was great. And the setting itself is interesting – a post-colonial era where everything has recently industrialized, and new engineering projects are far more likely to be brought up than magic, even though magic is more obviously present.

I feel like my enjoyment of these books kind of snuck up on me, but now I think of the series as one of the most innovative and original fantasy I’ve read. If you haven’t read this series already, I recommend starting with City of Stairs for the full impact.

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities, #3)
Broadway Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 30-May 6, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Thelma and Louise (1991)

I’ve been wanting to watch Thelma and Louise for a long time – it’s a classic, plus Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, and I like when he branches out from the epic films he’s so well-known for. I knew very little about it going in and wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

Diner waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) set out on a two day vacation, but when they end up shooting a potential rapist, they end up on the run from the law and events start escalating. I’m not quite sure what genre this movie falls under. It’s got a unique tone, part black comedy, part drama, part road movie, part tragedy, and probably a few other things as well. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and it has one of the best endings I’ve ever encountered. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are amazing in it. It’s not a perfect movie – Harvey Keitel’s character was a bit on the nose – but it’s very good.

I’ve heard that Thelma and Louise was a controversial movie when it first came out, and I can see why. Usually my husband and I end up having very similar opinions about the movies we watch, but we talked about this movie for weeks afterward. He found the characters (mostly Thelma) annoying, but they made perfect sense to me and I had nothing but sympathy for them, even when they made bad decisions.

Other Movies Watched

Split (2016)

James McAvoy plays a character suffering from dissociative identity disorder (he has 23 personalities) who kidnaps three teenage girls for nefarious purposes. I’m not usually a big fan of psychological horror, and I haven’t been too impressed by M. Night Shyamalan’s recent work, but once I heard that Split was set in the same universe as his earlier movie, Unbreakable, I was much more excited to watch it. Unbreakable was a terrific and grounded superhero story, an original story made to be a film rather than an adaptation of another medium. Split is a very different movie, but it has the same underlying DNA. James McAvoy does an outstanding job, there’s a particularly memorable scene where he cycles through a bunch of different personalities in the same shot. I was worried about the horror aspects of the movie (I scare easily) but it is really more of a slow drama than a horror movie and it never gets very scary. I’m excited to watch the next movie in the trilogy!

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

The Motorcycle Diaries is based on Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s memoirs of his motorcycle/hitchhiking journey across Latin America when he was in his early twenties. It’s a biopic that also fits into the road movie/coming-of-age genres, which is unusual. Che starts off the journey not really knowing who he is or what he really wants to do, but the people he meets on the road instill convictions in him that he didn’t realize he cared about. Any movie about famous people, especially revolutionary figures, risks being too much of a hagiography, but The Motorcycle Diaries makes Che seem like an ordinary and relatable person, thanks in large part to Gael Garcia Bernal’s portrayal.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a 1950s housewife with a successful husband, a thriving social life, and a beautiful house. When she finds out that her husband is attracted to other men, her life starts to fall apart. Her only solace is her friendship/burgeoning romance with an African-American gardener, but of course, that’s pretty scandalous for the times. This movie is very interestingly shot, the colors and camera angles are reminiscent of a 1950s film (Wikipedia tells me it is imitating the style of a particular director, Douglas Sirk, but I’m not familiar with his work). The actors all do a fantastic job, especially Julianne Moore. I thought this was an ambitious movie that succeeded at what it was attempting, but I didn’t love it because the characters didn’t display a lot of emotion and I found it hard to connect with them.

The Space Between Us (2017)

Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first person born on Mars, has the opportunity to visit Earth for the first time, and goes on a roadtrip with a girl he met online to try and find his biological father. I had high hopes for The Space Between Us when I first heard of it, but I knew it had terrible reviews by the time we watched it. Still, I’m a sucker for anything related to space, and I find teen drama comfortingly nostalgic, so I wanted to watch it anyway. It’s a terrible movie – the plot is drivel, the science is bogus, and some of the actors seem to be phoning it in – but I enjoyed watching it. The first part before Gardner gets to Earth is actually decent, but it devolves into cliches (street smart girl, fish-out-of-water boy) quickly.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Hyperintelligent genetically engineered sharks get tired of being experimented on and decide to destroy their creators instead. I knew this movie would be really dumb going in, but sometimes stupid disaster movies can be fun, and this is certainly one of those. There are people being picked off one-by-one, a silly half-developed romance, ominously moving fins, and of course, plenty of explosions. The emotional payoff was surprisingly good, usually in movies like this, the characters you like the most end up getting killed, and that wasn’t quite the case in this movie. There are also some scenes that are pretty funny, the movie clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is good. But still, a really dumb movie.

One Eight Seven (1997)

One Eight Seven is a weird thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as a teacher who is stabbed by a student in a gang-dominated neighborhood in New York, and then moves to L.A. to another gang-dominated neighborhood where he encounters some more threatening students. I really did not like this movie. The way it is filmed and acted is clearly intended to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and it definitely succeeds at that. It seems to want to be inspired by The Deer Hunter (which is explicitly referenced), but it’s really not in the same league. I had a hard time getting invested in any of the characters, even though Samuel L. Jackson does his best.

“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

I don’t usually read much nonfiction, but I was interested in Evicted because a few of the people I follow on LibraryThing wrote rave reviews of it on their threads. When it popped up on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, I requested it, and I was surprised to actually end up winning a copy. Also, in the time between reading it and writing a review, apparently it has won the Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this year.

Evicted follows eight families and their landlords in Milwaukee as they go through the eviction process. The families and the reasons they end up evicted are quite different, but we get a clear picture of their lives and how they ended up where they are. We feel their anxiety and hopelessness, and it’s very hard not to sympathize with them, even when they make impulsive decisions that seem like they’re going to make things worse.

I would say that this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, perhaps all time. Most non-fiction books annoy me because they seem to have an idea that they’re pushing and pull in only the relevant facts, but Desmond presents events as they happen without too much commentary (he actually lived in two different low-income neighbourhoods for a year and most of the conversations recounted in the book are transcribed verbatim from audio recordings.) By focusing on the lives of both tenants and landlords, the book paints a balanced picture without moral judgment.

Desmond doesn’t just tell us individual stories, he also connects it to larger patterns and weaves in general research based on surveying over a thousand poor families. He makes a convincing case that evictions disrupt people’s lives extensively, making it much harder for them to escape poverty. He also shows how existing fair housing laws don’t always work as designed – for instance, landlords can evict tenants for causing a “nuisance”, which means calling the police too often. This means that in practice, women suffering domestic abuse often risk eviction by seeking help.

The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on solutions – there is a single chapter advocating a potential solution, but the main purpose is just to highlight the problem. I’m not sure what the answers are either,  but I think more people need to read this book so we can have a conversation about it. I’m also looking for recommendations for similar books (in style and tone), so please comment if you know of any!

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.