Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 3-9, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Paper Moon (1973)

I’d been wanting to watch this movie ever since I read about Tatum O’Neal winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it when she was 10 years old. My husband and I are both fans of the precocious-young-girl-meets-cantankerous-father-figure trope so I knew we’d like it before we watched it.

9-year-old Addie Loggins’ mother has just died has no local relatives. Conman Moses “Moze” Pray (who was involved with Addie’s mother and may be her father) is convinced by her neighbors to drive her to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri. Along the way, Moze discovers that Addie is a natural at conning people and soon they become a successful con-artist team. Paper Moon is not about the cons, though; it’s about seeing the relationship between Moze and Addie evolve.

The two main characters are played by Ryan O’Neal and his real-life daughter Tatum and they have fantastic chemistry. I’m not at all surprised that Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar because her performance is sensational. A lot of young actresses can play precocious and sassy, and she does those things well but she displays so much more range than that – she can be melancholy, determined, devious, frustrated, thoughtful… and all without losing any of her vulnerability. The Depression-era South setting is almost a character in itself, it adds a distinct atmosphere to the film. I can’t think of any criticism; pretty much everything seems like it was done well.

Watch it! And be prepared for your heartstrings to be tugged at by the end.

Other Movies Watched

Boogie Nights (1997)

I had been avoiding Boogie Nights for a while because director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson makes pretty intense movies and I’m not always in the mood for them, even though they are usually excellent. I thought Boogie Nights was pretty well-balanced though. It has intense moments, but it’s not agonizing to watch most of the time like There Will Be Blood or Magnolia.

Well-endowed Eddie Adams, a dishwasher at an L.A. nightclub, is discovered by porn filmmaker Jack Horner and soon finds his place in the porn world as star “Dirk Diggler”. In the first few years he makes friends, pitches successful movie ideas, and generally lives it up. His happy-go-lucky life can’t last forever, though, and as he gets into drugs and the porn industry changes, things start to fall apart.

Boogie Nights seemed like a cross between a traditional biopic of someone with a sketchy occupation (like American Made) and The Basketball Diaries (which is about the journey of a teenager addicted to drugs and also stars Mark Wahlberg). It immerses you right into the world of porn production in the 1970s (the “Golden Age of Porn“) and all its highs and lows. Despite its premise, it does not aim to titillate. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and focuses on all the mundane work that goes into making porn and any sex involved is just work and has nothing to do with pleasure. The characters are just normal people with the same ambitions and desires as us (even if they do work in an industry that seems somewhat alien) and so they’re very relatable. And there are some great actors in the cast bringing the characters to life – Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Alfred Molina, and more.

Oldboy (2003)

I really didn’t know much about this movie going into it except that it was really famous, South Korean, and possibly involved thriller elements. The premise is that businessman Oh Dae-su is imprisoned for fifteen years without knowing where, why, or who is holding him captive. He trains hard during his captivity and when he is finally released, he embarks on a quest to find his daughter and the identity of his captor.

I thought this was going to be a standard action/revenge movie (like John Wick) but it was mostly a twisty psychological thriller. There was certainly action and it was beautifully choreographed – I’ve never seen anything like this single-take side-scroller-esque fight scene, and I’m sure it has been and will continue to be hugely influential to filmmakers. The oppressive ambience of the movie should be just as iconic, though. Dae-su never really leaves the clutches of his captor, and his confusion and anxiety color the movie significantly (sometimes literally, the production design is often eerie). As with most psychological thrillers, if you really break it down, the plot is melodramatic and flawed, but focusing on that would do the movie a disservice because it has its own style and tells a tight story within it. It’s going to leave you disturbed though, so don’t watch it on a day where you’re looking for a purely entertaining movie.

In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges is the debut film of director/writer Martin McDonagh (more recently known for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It’s a black comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out in Bruges, Belgium after a botched job as they wait for word from their boss about what to do next.

I’ve never seen Colin Farrell in a role like this before and was impressed by his range. He plays Ray, the younger hitman, who is a bizarre mix of naive and vulgar and lovable and dumb and brash. He’s got great comic timing. Brendan Gleeson is excellent as his partner Ken, who’s surprisingly sensitive given his job. And Ralph Fiennes is terrific as always as the boss, the ruthless but principled Harry. It’s not all fun and games, though; the story is driven by the morality of its characters and we take that seriously even as we are amused by what’s happening on screen. No one does black comedy like the British and this movie ranks with one of the best.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Peggy Sue Bodell is about to divorce her high school sweetheart, Charlie, who has been unfaithful to her. At her 25-year high school reunion, she faints and is somehow transported back in time to her last year of high school but without losing any of her adult memories. She now has the chance to change her life by breaking up with Charlie before they get married.

Kathleen Turner (who I was introduced to fairly recently in Romancing the Stone) does a great job playing Peggy Sue, both in the past and present. I especially enjoyed her reaction to traveling to the past because it felt so realistic – she’s usually amused or exasperated and has been an adult too long to have any patience for her parents’ rules. Nicolas Cage as Charlie was pretty good too. He managed to be irrepressibly earnest and lovable but still very frustrating. This isn’t a clear-cut “if you got what you wanted, your alternate life would be terrible” story like It’s a Wonderful Life; Peggy Sue’s choices are all pretty attractive and she has fun with them, which made for a more nuanced narrative and an ending which earned its poignancy.

Neerja (2016)

I’ve been aware of Neerja Bhanot’s story for a long time and was pretty excited when I heard about this movie (she was a flight attendant on a hijacked plane and saved many passengers’ lives during the hijacking, but was killed before she could get to safety). I wish there were more Indian biopics or dramas based on real events; it’s one of my favorite movie genres.

The movie follows the standard biopic movie playbook, but it’s well-executed and compelling. It mainly focuses on the last day or so of Neerja’s life, establishing her home life and romantic prospects and also showing the terrorists getting ready to perform the hijacking. The pacing is tight and keeps the tension up all the way through – knowing what happened in real life didn’t make me any less anxious during the movie. The characters are fleshed out, even the terrorists who could have easily been one-dimensional baddies. Flashbacks to Neerja’s first marriage throughout the film remind us of her strength. And despite the subject, the movie does not resort to melodrama at any point, trusting the audience to react appropriately to the terrible events of the movie without having to hammer the point home.

Freaky Friday (1976)

Body swap movies are an old movie trope these days, but it all began with Freaky Friday (according to this list on Wikipedia, anyway). Ellen Andrews (Barbara Harris) and her teenage daughter Annabel (a young Jodie Foster) are constantly at odds. One day, they each wish that they were in the other person’s shoes and to their horror, their wish comes true. To make things worse, Annabel (as Ellen) is roped into cooking a meal for twenty five people even though she can’t cook and Ellen (as Annabel) must play in an important hockey game for her school team even though she has never played hockey.

I really liked this movie. It seemed more earnest than similar family movies that were made later. Annabel and Ellen were fully fleshed out characters rather than stereotypes; Annabel in particular is not a cookie-cutter teenager like we’re seeing in so many modern movies. Both Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris did a great job of not acting their age. There’s a lot of humor (and it’s actually funny), but there are also some touching moments like Annabel seeing her younger brother from a different perspective.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 26-Dec 2, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for a long time, especially because I got married unexpectedly young to someone who grew up on the opposite side of the planet and it seemed like it would be somewhat relatable.

Joey Drayton, the daughter of liberal upper-class couple Matt and Christina Drayton, returns unexpectedly early from a vacation with her new fiancé, John Prentice, who is widowed, significantly older, and black. The Draytons have raised Joey to believe in racial equality, but can’t quite wrap their heads around her decision. And just as they are getting used to the idea, John’s parents arrive for dinner with their own set of expectations.

This movie is entirely dialogue driven and it could easily be a play without having to make too many changes. But the dialogue is fantastic – it’s subtle, earnest, funny, insightful, and cuts right to the bone. Katharine Hepburn (who plays Joey’s mom) delivers one of the best monologues in cinematic history. Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Houghton give marvelous perfomances as well, and they elevate the writing even more. The plot’s urgency is a little contrived and seems too quickly resolved, but those are minor nitpicks. Watch it!

Other Movies Watched

Insomnia (2002)

I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan and this is the last of his movies that I hadn’t seen (I’ve even seen his $6,000 budget black-and-white debut film, Following). I’m not sure what took me so long. I expected it to be excellent, and that’s exactly what it was.

The movie is a remake of the 1993 Norwegian film of the same name (which I have not seen). LAPD detectives Dormer (Al Pacino) and Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are sent to Alaska to assist in a murder investigation in a small town. Their first encounter with the murderer ends in tragedy when Eckhart is shot. Dormer must now solve the murder while dealing with the insomnia caused by the perpetual daylight in the town and his guilt over Eckhart’s death.

Insomnia is a tense and tight psychological thriller with some terrific performances from Al Pacino, Robin Williams (who is terrifying as the killer), and everyone else. Every little detail in the movie – the framing, the pacing, the cinematography – is designed to convey Dormer’s scattered state of mind as his physical condition deteriorates, while preserving the sharp focus and skills that have made him a legendary investigator. And the characters are all realistically nuanced – there is no black and white morality here.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Zack Snyder’s (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman) movies have a unique style to them and it’s been growing on me. I was particularly excited about Sucker Punch since it had a mostly female cast.

Usually my husband and I have pretty similar opinions of movies we watch, but I liked this movie a lot more than he did. I’ve read reviews complaining about the incoherence of the movie and the sexualization of the characters and I’m not going to dispute either of those points (nor my husband’s observation that the fantasy worlds depicted don’t rise above generic CGI). But the movie is incredibly atmospheric – it has a trippy and gothic comic book feel helped by great music. I also found the premise of a young woman being lobotomized against her will reimagining her surroundings and plotting escape compelling.

Sucker Punch is far from a perfect movie, but I can see and appreciate what it was trying to do even if it didn’t fully succeed. And I’d like to watch more original movies, even if they fall a little flat.

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife about eight or nine years ago and I liked the writing but was a little creeped out by the premise and some of the scenes. My taste has evolved though, and I’ve been wanting to read the book again and see what I’d make of it now. I may still get around to that, but as a first step, I sought out the movie version.

Eric Bana plays Henry, a man with a genetic condition that causes him to randomly teleport to the past or future. His romance with his wife Claire (played by Rachel McAdams) is rather unusual as most of their meetings take place out of sequence. Even though he meets her when he’s 20, Claire has known him ever since she was a child. This makes for a relationship with unique difficulties, made worse by the fact that Claire cannot rely on his presence since he may disappear at any moment.

The constant time jumps make this hard story to tell in a linear manner but I found the movie very easy to follow. It reminded me a little bit of About Time (another movie where Rachel McAdams plays a character married to a time traveler) but it explores pretty different themes. I can’t think of anything else all that notable (bad or good) about this movie.

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Hocus Pocus is one of the classic kids movies that my husband grew up with and he’s been wanting me to see it for a long time. We started watching it once a long time ago but I wasn’t in the mood for campy fun for some reason (I’m glad I don’t take myself so seriously anymore).

On Halloween, three kids inadvertently resurrect a family of three witches burned in the Salem witch trials and must stop them from stealing the youth of the town’s children by sunrise. The kids are helped by Thackery, a 1600s boy turned into an immortal black cat. All sorts of hijinks ensue (it helps that it’s Halloween and everyone in town is in costumes).

As I mentioned, this movie is ridiculously campy. All three witches chew scenery with aplomb, particularly Bette Midler who plays the oldest sister and leader. There’s a lot of comedy from the sisters’ reaction to how things have changed since their death. Doug Jones (of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Star Trek: Discovery fame) is terrific at playing non-human characters, and he gives zombie Billy Butcherson a lot of character for what he had to work with. The actors playing the kids are fine and the special effects are kind of terrible but in a good way. The script for this movie was meant to originally be a Disney Channel original movie and it shows.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

I knew going into this movie that it would be somewhat dumb but I was interested in the music. It turned out to be a little dumber and crasser than even I thought it would be (such as people puking being used as humor) but it did have fun music so I was satisfied.

Anna Kendrick plays Beca, a freshman at (the fictional) Barden University who reluctantly joins a campus a capella group, the Barden Bellas. Aubrey, the leader of the Bellas, wants to stick to their tried-and-true set list, but Beca (who has a talent for mash-up mixes) pushes them in a more innovative direction. It’s got the usual tropes – a love interest that the protagonist needs to win back, the protagonist finding their place and building self-confidence, etc. It’s a lot like Bring It On, but not as good. Without the music, this would be a terrible movie.

The music is a lot of fun, though. It always amazes me how good a capella music can be, and all the songs featured are fairly well-known. I particularly enjoyed the “riff off” scene where all the a capella groups on campus improvise off of each other’s performances.

Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)

I saw Can’t Buy Me Love on a few “classic 80s teen movie” lists and it’s referenced at the end of one of my favorite teen movies, Easy A. I was disappointed by how terrible it was, though. I don’t think it deserves classic status at all (and Roger Ebert agrees with me, so I’m in good company).

The plot involves geeky outcast Ronald paying Cindy, one of the most popular girls in his school, $1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. This instantly makes him one of the cool kids and he soon stops hanging out with his old (nerdy) friends and embraces the shallow and superficial lifestyle of the popular crowd and drives Cindy (who has fallen in love with who he was when he was genuine) away. Eventually (of course) he realizes that people’s attention is fickle and goes back to being himself.

This isn’t the most original story but teen movies don’t have to be original – part of their charm is their cheesy predictability. But the cheesiness is earned by idealistic characters who are just discovering certain emotions and testing their boundaries. That requires heart and this movie doesn’t have any. Instead, most characters are callous and materialistic, starting with the protagonist. The happy ending felt unearned and I was actually hoping Ronald would end up alone (and not because of his social status!) since that would have the potential for realistic character growth. But I found the movie to be utterly tone-deaf.

Excerpt & Giveaway: “The Night Dahlia” by R.S. Belcher

I’ve been following author R.S. Belcher’s work ever since I read his excellent weird western debut, The Six-Gun Tarot, back in 2013. His newest book, The Night Dahlia, is the second book in the Nightwise urban fantasy series featuring cynical mage Laytham Ballard. It comes out on April 3 and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I’m also excited to be able to share an excerpt of the book in this post!

If you like what you see, be sure to enter the giveaway – the winner gets both books in the series, so you can enter even if you haven’t read the first book. Instructions on how to enter are at the bottom of this post.



The Voodoo Queen on Milby Street was a dive that tried a little too hard to be a dive. It made the hipster kids feel like they were really slumming without the need for paying gangland tolls and packing pistols. I liked the joint from my last visit to Houston because the music was good and the folks there didn’t skimp on the alcohol in their drinks. I bypassed the voluminous menu of concoctions that came in hollowed-out pineapples and fishbowls with little totem poles of fruit spears and paper umbrellas for buying the lone bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Reserve they had up on the top shelf. The fetching lass that sold it to me had hair dyed white and a tapestry of tattoos covering her slender body.

“You’re kidding,” she said. “That’s like a three-thousand-dollar bottle of twenty-three-year-old whiskey. You know that, right?” I handed her a wad of cash.“

Here’s four K,” I said. “It’s a tip for being the prettiest sight I’ve seen all day, darlin’.” The bartender looked at the money, back to me, and stepped to the back bar to count the bills and make sure they weren’t fake by the light of the enormous fish tank full of brilliantly colored clown fish that adorned the back wall of the bar. She came back with the bourbon like she was cradling the Ark of the Covenant, and a glass tumbler.

“Ice?” she asked.

“Be like pissing in holy water.”

“What’s the special occasion?”

“It’s my birthday,” I said, getting up from the bar.

“Happy birthday!” she said and actually meant it. “Hey, I get off at eight. I’ve never tasted twenty-three-year-old bourbon before.”

“Well, come find me,” I said. “I’ll introduce you to it, but I suspect that whiskey is older than you are.”

She laughed, and I retreated to the shadows of the bar floor.

Funny thing, when you buy a bottle like this, they pretty much let you camp any damn place you please. I went around a velvet rope and sat myself down in a corner booth of a closed section. The only lights in here were the small round fills built into the ceiling, bright light under them, and deep shadow all around. I could still hear the music from the jukebox. It was playing the Swan’s cover of “Can’t Find My Way Home.” I poured a drink and sipped it like the first kiss from an old lover in a long, long time. I had stayed dry for eleven months, Magdalena’s influence on me. She was gone, little Joey was gone. Gone, baby, gone, like the song goes. But Dean-fucking-Corll would go on forever. That little girl was gone, but my evil ass sat right here in air-conditioned comfort, getting good and tight. Cheers. Seeing children’s brains sprayed all over walls seemed as good a reason as any to take a flying leap off the wagon. I drained my glass; it was smooth as Sinatra, worth every penny. I poured myself another one, saw that little girl’s eyes as she slipped away, and toasted the darkness.

“Happy birthday, asshole,” I said.

Half a bottle or so later, a waitress came back to see how I was doing. I told her to bring me a bottle of the cheapest, nastiest tequila they had and a Budweiser in a bottle. I gave her five hundred dollars for her trouble. After that, I had no shortage of customer service.

The bottle of tequila was almost gone, and a forest of empty brown beer bottles covered the table. The afternoon crowd in the bar had mostly been office folks skipping out for a beer at lunchtime, a few college kids with no classes and money to burn, and of course my people, the barflies who didn’t give a fuck about the décor or the crowd as long as there was a seat for your ass and booze to whittle away the hours of your life until the end. There is a certain Zen meditation present in hard-core alcoholism.

The evening crowd was in now. It consisted of more sketchy locals from the Second District, the surrounding neighborhood, and swarms of hipsters, nursing the one PBR they could afford. There was a battle over who was setting the tone for the night on the jukebox, the music jumping from blues, to dance, to country. I did my part for the war effort by tossing in Johnny Cash’s cover of “I See a Darkness” and followed it up with K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut.” Take that, alt-folk scum! I paid the club manager a grand to keep my section closed. I wanted to be in a fishbowl, watching life, seeing how normal assholes spent their Friday night.

I had almost finished off the Pappy Van when the tattooed bartender walked up to my table with a stride like a panther. The black lights made her white hair almost glow. “You didn’t forget about me, did you?” she said over the throbbing music and the traffic jam of voices. She had a glass in her hand. I nodded for her to sit and she did. I poured her a glass, the last of the bottle, leaving a single swallow for myself. She raised the glass, and I raised the bottle.

“Happy birthday,” she said, “and congratulations on another successful fulfillment of your ongoing obligation, Laytham.”

I paused in drinking the last of the bottle and cocked my head at the bartender, who drained her glass and sighed. I looked across the bar and saw the same bartender, same tattoos, same hair, waving bye to the other bartender on duty as she headed for the door, her purse over her shoulder.

“That,” said the bartender sitting across from me, “is what sin tastes like.” I slipped a cigarette between my lips.

“Got a light?” I asked the Devil.

“You had two images prominent in your mind,” the embodiment of all malice said as she lit my cigarette like any good bartender would. “This sweet young thing you visualized rutting with, and that dead little girl back at the school. Since it was your birthday, I chose, sorry for this, the lesser of two evils.”

“What do you want?” I asked. “You are assassinating a very expensive buzz. I did your dirty work, and got you your AWOL scumbag back.”

“You did, Laytham,” it said. “I would have manifested sooner, but I had to wait until your consciousness was altered sufficiently for us to interact. I wanted to congratulate you on heroically saving that poor boy’s life, Laytham. Bravo.”

“Fuck you,” I said, and drained the last of the bourbon. It tasted like ashes.

“Technically, fuck you,” she replied, pouring herself a glass of the last of the oily tequila, “since you were the one who bartered away three years of your life in my service in exchange for those wishes you needed so desperately at the time.” I watched the Devil drink the last of my booze. I think there was a metaphor in there somewhere. “Haven’t we had fun these past few years? Me, breaking up the wearisome monotony of your plodding march toward self-induced oblivion with my little honey-do list of tasks. You, a villain most foul, given chances over and over again to act the hero, like you did today. Tell me, hero, how does it feel to be back on the side of the angels?”

I looked across the table for anything left to drink. There was nothing. I looked up at this thing of purest self-hate, conjured out of my own mind, and said nothing. There was nothing to say. The Devil knows you, because the Devil is you. She went on, taking one of my American Spirits out of the crumpled and almost empty pack. “I wanted to congratulate you,” she said, lighting the cigarette between those full lips, “and let you know I was here to give you a little birthday present of my own. You have worked off about a year’s worth of your debt in the past two. I am forgiving almost all of the remaining time on your account tonight, my dear Laytham.”

“Almost?” I said, leaning across the table, knocking several beer bottles over as I did. I think a few smashed on the floor.

“I’m holding onto one minute,” the Devil said. “That’s all. One measly minute, and of course the ragged chunk of your soul invested in that time will remain in escrow until that minute is paid. Am I not a generous god?”

“You’re what my granny would call a hoodooer,” I slurred. My companion nodded.

“Well said. How is your dear grandmother these days? Don’t hear much from her since you ‘helped’ her all those years ago, eh, hero?”

I roared and launched myself across the table at the son of a bitch. The table tumbled over as I fell. Bottles shattered everywhere. I was on the floor with all the other broken things, trying to get back up. The pretty bartender was gone; I was alone. I had been alone the whole time.

“Okay, big spender, time to call you a cab.” Thick hands lifted me off the floor and to my feet.

“Letgoame,” I said, articulately, and tried to pull away. It didn’t work. The guy holding me was a good six inches taller than me and outweighed me by maybe eighty pounds. He had a hardness behind his eyes that told me the smile fixed on his face was a lie. If I pushed, he would beat the hell out of me. “You have any idea who you’re fuhkin’ with?” I said.

“Look, friend,” the bouncer said, walking me out of the closed section, “Let’s just go outside and talk about this, okay?”

“Fuhyou,” I said and took a swing at him. “I’m fuhkin’ Laythm Ballard, you muther fuhker!” It connected, but there wasn’t anything behind it. I might as well have slapped him with a bar rag. I tried to put together a spell, some kind of spell, death spell? Fire-fall? My concentration was like mercury, and my energies were as scattered as any other broken-down old drunk’s would have been. The bouncer snapped off two quick, tight jabs at me. He wasn’t just a meathead that stood at the door and checked ID; he had training. There were bright lights popping behind my eyes, and I was falling. Then there was movement after some time in the dark. A female voice was near my ear.

“Who did he say he was?”

“Nobody, just an old, rich drunk,” I heard the bouncer telling the girl, “celebrating his birthday a little too hard. He was back there talking to himself for the last half hour.”

Book Blurb

Laytham Ballard once protected humanity as part of the Nightwise, a secret order of modern-day mages dedicating to holding hellish supernatural forces at bay, but that was before a string of sadistic ritual murders shook everything he believed in—and sent him down a much darker path. One that has already cost him most of his soul, as well as everything he once held dear.

Now a powerful faerie mob boss has hired Ballard to find his lost-lost daughter, who went missing several years ago. The long-cold trail leads him across the globe, from the luxurious playgrounds of the rich and famous to the seedy occult underbelly of Los Angeles, where creatures of myth and legend mingle with street gangs and sex clubs, and where Ballard finds his own guilty past waiting for him around every shadowy corner. To find Caern Ankou, he will have to confront old enemies, former friends and allies, and a grisly cold case that has haunted him for years.

But is Caern still alive? And, perhaps more importantly, does she even want to be found?


Tor Books is sponsoring a giveaway of one set of Nightwise and The Night Dahlia! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “Nightwise” and your name and mailing address. This giveaway is open until April 15, 2018 and is open to North American residents only.

Please make sure to include your full mailing address, I cannot consider you for the giveaway without it.

Note on privacy: I will not use your email address or mailing address for any purpose other than this specific giveaway. If you win, your mailing address will be forwarded to the publisher (Tor Books, in this case) so that they can mail you the books, but they will not see your email address.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Ghost World (2001)

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

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

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

American Made (2017)

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

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

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

In This Corner of the World (2016)

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

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

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

Sister Act (1992)

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

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

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

Becoming Jane (2007)

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

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

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

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

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

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 12-18, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Beguiled (2017)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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

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

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

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

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

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

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

Midnight Run (1988)

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

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

Bring It On (2000)

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

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


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

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

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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

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

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Whale Rider (2002)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Song of the Sea (2014)

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

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

Brooklyn (2015)

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

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

About Time (2013)

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

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

Jane Eyre (2011)

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

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

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 29-Nov 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Mud (2012)

Ellis and Neckbone are two friends growing up on the banks of the Mississppi in Arkansas. One day, they sneak off to visit an island on the river where Neckbone has seen a boat stuck in a tree (a remnant of a past flood). They soon discover that they are not the only ones to have made that discovery and meet fugitive Mud who is hiding out on the island. They befriend him and resolve to try to help him reunite with his girlfriend and start a new life.

I’ve loved every movie written/directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Loving), so the fact that I loved this movie should come as no surprise. Matthew McConaughey is an excellent choice for the title role; his character is gritty and stubbornly optimistic; he’s clearly a dangerous man but you also know he won’t hurt the protagonists. The two child actors (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) are very good as well, as is Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s girlfriend Juniper. The Mississppi is almost a character in itself; Ellis comes comes from a dying tradition of families living on the river and making their living through fishing, and Neckbone’s older brother (and guardian) Galen (Michael Shannon, who is in all of Nichols’ movies) makes his living from oyster-diving as well. The river is omnipresent, offering both adventure and sanctuary.

The movie is fundamentally a coming-of-age story for Ellis but it reminded me of two other stories –  the book Great Expectations, if the story had been more about Pip and Abel Magwitch, and the movie Cop Car, which starts off with two boys seeking adventure but goes in an entirely different direction after the first half an hour or so. It instantly became one of my favorite Nichols movies and I highly recommend it.

Other Movies Watched

Labyrinth (1986)

16-year-old Sarah is left to babysit her baby brother Toby when her father and stepmother go out. Frustrated with not being able to do what she wants, she wishes that the Goblin King (from the book she is reading) would come take him away. She doesn’t expect her wish to actually come true, though. Now she has 13 hours to find her way through a labyrinth and rescue her brother before he gets turned into a goblin forever.

I’m not sure what to say about Labyrinth because well, it’s Labyrinth and it’s such a classic. I’ve seen it before but we recently got the 4K UHD blu-ray so we had to re-watch it. It’s imaginative and original; it’s directed by Jim Henson and as such, features a lot of creative puppet characters. David Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King is probably one of the most unique and iconic movie roles ever. Jennifer Connelly is perfect as Sarah; young enough to be believably whimsical but old enough to be a sort-of-love-interest to Jareth. This movie is definitely quirky but it’s fantastic and I expect to re-watch it many times in the future.

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel is Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman and the film that launched the DC Extended Universe series of films (now including Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League). It is an origin story, showing us Superman’s emergence and battle against his first major foe, fellow Kryptonian General Zod.

I watched Man of Steel a couple of months after it came out and wasn’t that impressed. I’m not sure why; this time around I thought it was very good. Maybe I was still enamored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s comedic tone (which has now been feeling stale and boring for a while)? This movie does take itself much more seriously, but that’s a good thing; it respects its characters and doesn’t cheapen the dramatic moments by trying to insert comedy everywhere.

The cast is great as well – Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s two dads, and Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne are all in it as well. And of course Henry Cavill plays Superman and does a terrific job (although I recently found out that he’s a Wheel of Time and Brandon Sanderson fan so I may be biased). I think having recently seen the original 1978 Superman movie helped me understand the story better; some of the things I didn’t like from the last time I watched Man of Steel seem to be part of the original Superman mythos and therefore unavoidable.

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) doesn’t fit in at school and is ignored at home. When he meets Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the strange new girl at school, they quickly become best friends. Leslie and Jess turn the nearby woods into a whole new fantasy world named Terabithia, a place where they can both thrive as who they are.

I thought that this movie would be a straightforward fantasy adventure movie but it turned out to be more of a drama. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb are both excellent; a drama with children as protagonists is a risky proposition but these actors really make it work. The characters are nuanced and there is no good or evil. Even the school bullies have heart.

Cars 3 (2017)

Lightning McQueen has been one of the top racers in the world for years. His dominance is threatened when newer, fancier, and faster cars start joining the sport (just as he did in Cars). He’s determined to prove that he can be just as good no matter who the competition is. He starts to train at the new state-of-the-art Rust-eze racing center under personal trainer Cruz Ramirez but grows frustrated with the high-tech methods used there.

Thankfully this movie does not follow up at all on the events of Cars 2. There’s absolutely no espionage and very little Mater, and focus of the story shifts back to Lightning’s character growth. I found Lightning having to come to terms with his own limitations and realizing he can’t race forever to be a compelling story. Cruz brings freshness to the story without seeming like Lightning 2.0. And it was great to see Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds play such a pivotal role in the story; he was one of my favorite parts of Cars.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic and has been looking for true love all his life. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new administrative assistant at the greeting card company he works for, he quickly starts to believe that she’s the one. Summer doesn’t quite share his values and their relationship seems doomed from the start but it takes 500 days for Tom to accept that and that’s what this movie is about.

(500) Days of Summer is a painfully honest look at how two people in a relationship can have completely different perspectives on both how they think and feel and what they believe the other person is thinking and feeling. Tom is in love with the idea of love and chooses to interpret Summer’s behavior with that bias, which means he doesn’t really know Summer (and cannot love her for who she is). And worse, he doesn’t even know that that’s what he’s doing. The movie has an outstanding script and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel do a fabulous job at being both frustratingly familiar and sympathetic. I also enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz as Tom’s young sister who is much wiser than him.

Body of Lies (2008)

CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is tasked with hunting down a notorious terrorist in Jordan. He’s instructed by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to work with the Jordanian Intelligence chief Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) as necessary. However, his efforts and working relationship with Hani are often hindered by Hoffman who interferes with local operations without any warning and often with disastrous outcomes.

This movie was a pretty good action-thriller with great performances by the three leads – Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Strong and tight and atmospheric direction by Ridley Scott. The contrast/chemistry between Crowe’s amoral and “results-oriented” character and DiCaprio’s old-fashioned spy character was especially well-done. I found the story a little generic, though, there are a lot of these Middle East action/espionage movies and I didn’t think Body of Lies really distinguished itself from the rest.

Interview with Peter Clines & giveaway of “Paradox Bound”

I recently read and loved Paradox Bound (see my review here), which was described to me as “a wildly fun sci-fi novel” and “National Treasure meets Doctor Who” and actually lived up to that description. I was excited to have the opportunity to interview author Peter Clines and give away two copies of the book! I hope you enjoy the interview.

For instructions on how to enter the giveaway, please see the bottom of this post.

The Interview

Hi Peter! Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.

No problem at all. Ask me your questions, bridgekeeper. I’m not afraid.

I really liked Paradox Bound but I haven’t read any of your other books (yet). Is Paradox Bound representative of the kinds of books you write? Is there anything that you’ve done in Paradox Bound that you haven’t done in previous books?

Maybe? Sort of? It’s kind of a broad question. I like doing lots of different things, so my stories tend to be balancing on this three-way tightrope. Sometimes they’re a little more sci-fi, sometimes a little more creepy, sometimes a little more action-adventure. Some lean a little more this way, some lean a little more that way. And I like to think they all have a few nice, believable funny moments in them. So I guess it’s representative that way.

As for things I haven’t done before… well, hopefully a lot of it. I’ve never done something with this much historical research behind it, which was kind of fun and intimidating and overwhelming all at once.

One of the things that I loved about Paradox Bound is that it told a satisfying self-contained story but it had such a cool world and mythos. Are you planning to set any more stories in the same world?

Well, I’ve kind of stumbled into this sort of MCU/ Stephen King sort of place where a lot of my stories share loose connections. Fans of my other books probably caught an easter egg or three in Paradox Bound. So I think it’s likely we’ll see some of the characters from this book again, but maybe not so much a direct sequel. Does that make sense?

As an immigrant and recent American citizen, the idea of searching for the American Dream really resonates with me. What inspired you to come up with the object of Harry and the other searchers’ quest in Paradox Bound?

One of the original inspirations for this was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It’s got so many clever takes on London. The different place names and sayings that are unique to it. And it struck me on my, I don’t know, hundred-and-eighth reading or something, that no one had ever done something similar, an American version, so to speak. It became an idea I played with on and off for a while until I got it all to sit right. But one of the early ideas that came to me was the term “the American Dream.” What if all the stories about people searching for the American Dream weren’t just clever metaphors? What if it was an actual quest that people were on?

Did you do any historical research for Paradox Bound? Are there events or people that you would have liked to include that didn’t end up fitting within the story?

So much research. So much of it not used. It’s just the nature of the beast. There was a ton of stuff I found and wanted to use, but couldn’t make it fit. There was also stuff that didn’t fit, so I tweaked history for story purposes… although I only did that once or thrice.

I couldn’t help imagining a movie version of Paradox Bound as I was reading it. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you watch a lot of movies. How does that influence your writing?

Watched a lot and worked on a lot. Movies are a very different storytelling medium, but I think there are a lot of aspects to storytelling that are universal. It doesn’t matter if I’m telling the story as a book, as a movie, as a comic book, whatever.

So there were things I definitely learned about storytelling by working on movies—most notably what you do and don’t need to tell the story. So often I’d see people doing redundant, unnecessary work, either in the script or on the screen.
And there are still things I learn watching bad movies. I’m a big believer that you can learn more from mistakes than you can from perfection.

If you had to cast a Paradox Bound movie, who would you choose?

I’m always awful at these, just because my experience tends to make me a bit overly realistic (or perhaps “cynical”) about such things. It’s only slightly more plausible than an alien invasion. Besides, I always get a kick out of hearing how other people see the characters (even if I find some of their choices kinda baffling).
 One thing I will toss out—there’s an actor I worked with years ago, Reno Wilson, who’s since gone on to bigger and better things. He’s kind of a fitness enthusiast, and he was sharing pictures and videos on twitter a while back. And I remember thinking, “man, he’d be fantastic as John in Paradox Bound.”

What is your writing process like? What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?

My writing process is a mess. No one should follow it or use it as an example.

Seriously, though… I’ve been trying to outline a little more these days. I still leave myself lots of room, but I try to have the beginning, end, and a few major stops along the way all marked out before I get going. I was having some health issues for a while that really slowed me down, but now I’m back to about 2000 words a day. I try to keep it to a nine-to-five schedule, but I’ll go later if I need to.

I think first drafts are great, just the “anything goes” aspect that lets you spew ideas out on the page. But I also love editing. Seriously, I get a great joy out of going through a story line by line, reviewing the dialogue, examining word choices.

I love my job, is what I think this boils down to.

If you could go back and edit or re-do a particular scene in something that you’ve already published, is there anything you would change?

So many things. Almost every book I’ve worked on has something like that. Hell, there are things I’d change on Paradox Bound. just in the months since I finished working on it.

In theory, we keep learning, figuring out how to do things better, so it’s always possible to look back and think “Oh, it would’ve been better if I’d done this instead of that.” It doesn’t necessarily mean what’s there is bad, it just means we’ve learned a cleaner, more direct way of doing the same thing. That’s the goal, really. To keep improving, for the next book to be better than the last book.

Is there a character that you have created ended up surprising you because of the decisions they made?

Not really. I’ve always disliked that whole “oh, the characters guided me, they went in a different direction,” mindset. Writing is work. It takes effort, and all that effort comes from the writer. Nowhere else.

Now, that being said… I have had points where I’m writing and I realize the little changes and adjustments I’ve made along the way have guided the book in a new direction. But this isn’t “the characters” doing anything. It’s just me having an understanding of plot and story and structure and realizing the book needs to change to make logical sense.

What are you most challenged by these days?

Time. There’s never enough time. I have five or six different projects I want to be working on, and it gnaws at me to have to pick between them. It’s just the reality of the job, but still…

I want one of those magic pocket watches that grant you an extra hour of time every day. Are those still a thing? Where can I get one of those…?

What writer would you wish to hear has always wanted to meet you?

Has always wanted to meet me? Hmmmmm. I don’t know. When you put it that way it seems a little… weird, for some reason? There are a couple who I’d just be thrilled to know they read something of mine and found it mildly entertaining. I was thrilled when I heard F. Paul Wilson liked one of my books, and we got to meet when he was signing here in LA a while back. G. Willow Wilson, maybe? I grew up in New England, so Stephen King’s just a given. Clive Barker?

My husband and I have been watching a movie a day for about two years now and I’m always looking for new movie recommendations. What have you been watching lately?

It’s October so I’ve been watching tons of horror/creepy movies. Well, not tons. I’m behind because of New York Comic-Con. Paranorman is wonderful, and so are Coraline and The Addams Family. I have a goofy love for Jason X. There’s classics like The Omen and Halloween and The Car. Hellraiser’s another favorite. Plus, like I was saying before, I’m always watching bad movies on Vudu and usually dissecting them live on Twitter. Just discovered a little collection there of bad horror movies hosted by Elvira.

If you could be a member of any fantasy race, which would you choose and why? (Please feel free to describe your weapon of choice as well).

Okay, that’s a new one.

I think I’d probably go with some kind of lizard man. I was scared of the Sleestaks when I was a kid, and that grew into an odd fascination later. Loved them as D&D monsters. My first real story, back in third grade, was about lizard men from the center of the Earth.

So let’s say a lizard man armed with Captain America’s shield (or its native fantasy-world equivalent). That’s probably good for some fan art, right?

If you could have Eli and Harry from Paradox Bound team up with a fictional character from another universe, who would you choose and why?

Oh, there’s so many fun possibilities. The obvious answer is Doctor Who, but I’m going to be a little more obscure and go with the Lifeboat crew from Timeless. I think there’d be a lot of opportunities for fun there.
If anyone from NBC wants to give me a call, I’m sure we can work something out…

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This is the part where I tell people to please check out Paradox Bound., right? Okay… that. Check it out.

Thank you for your time again!

Thanks for the questions!

The Giveaway

Paradox Bound‘s publisher Crown has graciously let me give away two copies of the book! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject Paradox Bound and your name and mailing address (US only, sorry!). This giveaway is open until Dec 15, 2017.

Please make sure to include your full mailing address, I cannot consider you for the giveaway without it.

Note on privacy: I will not be using your email address or mailing address for any purpose other than this specific giveaway. If you win, your mailing address will be forwarded to the book’s publisher (Crown, in this case) so that they can mail you the book, but they won’t ever see your email address.

“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for the following books by Brandon Sanderson: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer, and Warbreaker.

If you’re a frequent reader, you may have picked up on the fact that Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors and that the Stormlight Archive is my favorite series written by him (see my reviews of The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). So to say that I was eagerly awaiting the release of Oathbringer would be a gross understatement. Tor.com had been releasing preview chapters every few days until the book was released but I managed to stay away from reading them because it would have been slow torture not to be able to read on. I was so happy to finally get my hands on the book.

The world of Roshar changed irrevocably at the end of Words of Radiance – the Everstorm sweeps the world heralding a new Desolation, the Parshendi are transformed into monsters, Radiants publicly reveal themselves, and the lost city of Urithiru is discovered at last. Now that everyone knows that the world may be about to end, they have to figure out what to do about it. Dalinar tries to bring together the nations of Roshar via diplomacy, an initiative that is unlikely to succeed because of his reputation. Shallan tries to hold herself together after the revelations that she comes to terms with and jumps into helping any way she can at Urithiru. Kaladin travels home to warn his family of the Everstorm and scout out the Voidbringers.

Every Stormlight Archive book features the flashbacks of a single character and this is Dalinar’s turn. We finally get a look into how his reputation as the Blackthorn was made, and it’s more horrifying than we can imagine. We see everyone around Dalinar treat him like he’s some kind of ticking time bomb even though he seems perfectly reasonable whenever we see the world through his viewpoint. Well, it turns out that there are legitimate reasons for why people are so wary around him. The longstanding mystery of his visit to the Nightwatcher is solved and ties in beautifully to his character arc. This is his book to shine and he does so magnificently.

There were a few threads at the end of Words of Radiance that I wasn’t really looking forward to picking back up because I was anticipating all sorts of melodrama from them: Shallan’s lack of knowledge of Kaladin’s involvement in her brother Helaran’s death, the brewing Shallan-Adolin-Kaladin love triangle, the murder of Sadeas, among others. I should have had better faith in the author, though. None of these issues are ignored but they get resolved naturally and without compromising the integrity of the characters.

In general I was impressed by the characters in this book. I usually associate Brandon Sanderson with amazing worldbuilding, intricate plotting, and truly cinematic action scenes, but I’ve found his characterization unremarkable. That was not the case with this book. I’ve talked about Dalinar’s arc already but it’s Kaladin and Shallan that I found the most surprising. The first two books have seen them struggle against their personal demons and win, but as Kaladin says to Teft in this book, becoming a Radiant doesn’t change who you are. Kaladin and Shallan are both incredibly broken people that have not yet learned to live with themselves in peace, and they don’t have much to distract them away from that fact anymore. Kaladin continues to grapple with his depression and Shallan is in the process of fracturing her personality into various personas so that she does not have to deal with herself as a complete and complicated person. I don’t think I’ve related to any of Sanderson’s characters before, but I certainly understood exactly how Kaladin and Shallan felt from various points in my life and it made me feel a lot more invested (no pun intended) to them. The other characters all feel more fleshed out as well as well, especially Adolin who just keeps getting better.

It seems like the Cosmere and other planets in the shared universe are taking a bigger role in events; the book was prefaced with an explanation of the Cosmere. Of course we see Nightblood whenever we’re seeing Szeth’s viewpoint but we also run into Vivenna from Warbreaker and she is a major side character! I figured out who she was almost immediately and was thrilled. I was also glad to have read the Lift POV novella Edgedancer beforehand because she has graduated from just showing up in interludes to being part of the main story, and it also helps explain Nale’s behavior towards the rest of the Skybreakers.

There were some genuinely sad and moving moments in the book, which I can’t really talk about since they would spoil things. Not everyone makes it out of the book alive, and some people make it alive that I really, really wish didn’t. The interior art is beautiful, I think there’s more of it than the previous books had. The endpapers have in-world representations of the Heralds that were especially pretty.

I could go on forever about things I loved. This series just keeps getting better and I can’t wait for more.

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive, #3)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“Artemis” by Andy Weir

Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a porter and smuggler living in the Moon’s first and only city, Artemis. She’s been trying to save up for a special purchase but just can’t make money fast enough. When one of her regular clients offers her a massive amount of money for an illegal and dangerous job, she jumps at the chance to take it. Of course it’s illegal and dangerous for a reason and she ends up in deep trouble. She must figure out how to take down the organization gunning for her head while also not getting deported for breaking the law.

I absolutely loved The Martian when I read it so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. On the surface, the two books are fairly different – Artemis is a crime thriller and heist novel. However, they both have the same underpinnings of rigorously detailed science, a somewhat immature sense of humor, and a focus on being fun to read.

There’s been a lot of hype about the protagonist of this book, Jazz, being a Muslim woman; most negative reviews of Artemis mention being disappointed by her portrayal. Her gender and her religious beliefs are not a significant part of her identity, though; they just add a bit of background color. The fact that she is an naturally good welder is more relevant to her identity than her gender and that’s okay (I’m female and Indian but I identify far more with bibliophiles or programmers or people who like to cook than with women or other Indians). Plus she is first and foremost the protagonist of a fun heist novel and she’s got the sense of humor and adventurous spirit to go with it.

I know I mentioned the rigorous science already but I’m going to mention it again because it’s the best part of the book. There is so much detail about how the city functions, how it’s planned and put together, the economy around it, and so on. It really gave me a sense of both how much work humanity will need to do to actually begin expanding to the stars and confidence that it’s a solvable problem in the near-term.

You don’t really think of worldbuilding as something that’s necessary for a near-future story like this, and most authors just handwave the details away. But Andy Weir rivals the best fantasy worldbuilders (like Brandon Sanderson) in figuring out all the background details and casually referencing them. It makes the world feel immersive and alive, like there’s so much more to explore that isn’t relevant to the current story. It’s like a movie that has been shot on location, rather than building a set with the minimal details needed for the particular scene. And the science is not just limited to background details. The physics of how things work on the Moon is integral to the plot, and the author manages to make what’s essentially slow and careful welding riveting.

The weakest part of the book is undoubtedly the dialogue, both inside Jazz’s head and her interactions with other people. Mark Watney’s juvenile humor worked so well in The Martian because we had sympathy for his situation and forgave him his not-so-funny remarks because we didn’t want to him to go crazy in his loneliness. Jazz has a similar sense of humor but it’s much less tolerable because that’s who she is all the time and just comes across as childish. The dialogue suffers from some of the same flaws; although most of the epistolary segments were better. But I wasn’t reading the book for the characters or the prose so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment much.

Artemis by Andy Weir
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.