Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 2-8, 2017

Midnight Special (2016)

I remember watching the trailer for Midnight Special last year and being intrigued but not knowing quite what to make of it. It seemed like maybe it was a supernatural thriller (my notes for it said “small boy with laser eyes”), but it didn’t seem very scary. It turns out that it’s just a straight up sci-fi movie that pays homage to the “government chase” genre (like E.T. or Starman, which I’ve never seen) and it’s very good.

The movie starts out with a TV playing an AMBER alert announcement for eight year old Alton, who was last seen with a man named Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon.) Roy and Alton are watching this TV, and it’s pretty clear that Alton has not been kidnapped – we soon find out that he’s actually Roy’s son, and they’re on the run from a religious cult (“the Ranch”) that has sprung up around him.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story because I think that’s best experienced through the movie. We don’t know very much about what’s going on at first, and the movie explains it slowly in a natural way through excellent dialogue. The characters accompanying Alton seem larger than life, especially in their support of Alton, but they also look and act like normal people that you know (a minor example is that Kirsten Dunst wears no makeup in this movie.) If you’re expecting a neat ending where everything is explained in detail, you won’t get it, but I don’t think this movie needs that – it would take away from its genuine feel.

 Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians and computer scientists who helped make NASA’s space program a reality. There was very little chance that I wouldn’t like this movie, since it combines a bunch of my favorite things – space exploration, computers/mathematics, underdog stories, and Kevin Costner. Many movies these days that explore racism or sexism aren’t very subtle about it. Hidden Figures is not one of those movies and its depiction of the era and people seemed more realistic to me – widespread segregation and lots of subtext. I do wish the technical detail had been a little more interesting, every time there was a math-related scene, the concepts were heavily simplified, which took me out of the movie a little bit.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Disney/Pixar and Studio Ghibli make some of the best movies, and I often wish there were more good animated movies that tried to appeal to both kids and adults. I had forgotten about Laika, but they definitely fill that niche, based on the this movie and Coraline. Kubo and the Two Strings is the story of Kubo, a young boy who must find three pieces of magical armor to protect him from his grandfather the Moon King who wants to remove his humanity. It’s an original story inspired by Japanese mythology, and it’s creative, beautiful, heartwarming, and fun. It’s got a great voice cast – Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, etc. I enjoy the stop-motion aesthetic (and am in awe of the technique), and this movie does it particularly well.

Live by Night (2016)

I’m a fan of Ben Affleck’s directing (Gone Baby Gone, Argo, The Town) and I’ve mostly enjoyed movies based on Dennis Lehane’s books (Gone Baby Gone again, Shutter Island, Mystic River) so I was interested in seeing how Live by Night turned out. Affleck also stars in the movie as Joe Coughlin, a thief who tries to stay clear of organized crime, but is forced into getting involved when he falls in love with a gangster’s mistress. We just follow the story of his life, the plot is pretty loose, although it’s thematically coherent. I found this movie a lot better than I thought it would be and was shocked to find out that it was a commercial and critical failure. I particularly liked the character of Coughlin – he’s in touch with humanity and is actually a pretty good guy, and he’s the first gangster I’ve ever found relatable.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage) are three friends from a small Pennsylvania town who decide to enlist to fight in Vietnam and it changes everything about their life. The Deer Hunter is one of the first movies to portray the effects of war in a gritty and realistic way, and it is an incredibly depressing movie. It’s divided into three acts – before, during, and after their stint in Vietnam, and none of them are very pleasant. The actors are all incredible, especially Robert De Niro (who is not his usual reassuring self) and Christopher Walken. The movie is very realistic – as someone who dislikes crowds and parties, I found the wedding scene excruciating, even though all the characters seemed to be having fun. If this movie has a flaw, it’s that it never lets up on the grimness, but I think that’s probably by design. If you’re just looking for entertainment, don’t watch this movie, but otherwise, it’s well worth your time.

Munich (2005)

After the assassinations of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Israeli government secretly launched Operation Wrath of God, a convert mission aimed at eliminating the leadership of the Palestinian group that planned the attacks. Munich follows an assassination team lead by Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), a Mossad operative as they track down various targets and eliminate them. The team is fairly inexperienced at first, but they’re motivated and do their job fairly well, but the deeper they go, the murkier their mission becomes. This movie is based on the memoir of the Israeli agent who led this operation, and it’s dark and compelling. I can’t point to any flaws in this movie (except for one questionable sex scene near the end – you’ll know it when you see it), but I didn’t feel satisfied by it. Maybe it was that the juxtaposition of the stark horror of the Israeli athletes getting killed with the increasing moral ambiguity of the main storyline didn’t feel very smooth? It’s still definitely a movie worth watching.

A United Kingdom (2016)

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (future Botswana) falls in love with English woman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) while studying in England. They marry but face stiff opposition from all quarters – Seretse’s people disapprove of their king marrying outside of their own people, Ruth’s family disapproves of her husband being black, and the English government tries to discredit Seretse’s claim to chieftainship because of fear of losing the uranium trade with Botswana’s neighbor South Africa, which has recently adopted apartheid policies. I generally love movies based on true historical events, but this one was bland and boring. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike don’t have a lot of chemistry, and the supporting characters all seem like cardboard cutouts that are just doing what the plot wants them to.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 26-Apr 1, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Silence (2016)

I’ve been looking forward to watching this movie ever since I first heard about it. Martin Scorsese has been trying to make the movie based on a 1966 Japanese novel since 1990, and even if the premise wasn’t fascinating, a Scorsese passion project would have made me excited no matter what.

After hearing rumors that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced his faith, young priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) secretly enter Japan to try and find him and help the local Christians. The movie is set during the 17th century during a time when Christianity was banned in Japan and Christians were persecuted by any means necessary. Rodrigues and Garupe cannot do anything except watch and hide as the villagers who have taken them in suffer horrible fates.

As the name suggests, Silence is a slow and often agonizing movie. Rodrigues struggles with the horrors that he is exposed to and the silence of God, and he does nothing to deserve what he goes through. Andrew Garfield (who is getting used to playing someone driven by his religion – see Hacksaw Ridge) puts in his best performance ever – it’s restrained but speaks volumes. The whole movie hangs on us finding his internal trials compelling, and there’s not a moment where we don’t.

Other Movies Watched

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Y Tu Mamá También is a coming of age story about two teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, who go on a road trip with an older woman. It’s inspired by traditional American road trip movies, but it’s set in Mexico during a time of political upheaval, which is mostly expressed via the omniscient narrator who comments on the protagonists’ lives and things they come across. I didn’t expect to love this movie as much as I did. Tenoch and Julio are spoiled and young, and they don’t really think about or do much other than drugs and sex, but they’re still somehow easy to relate to. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (who I already like a lot from other movies) are childhood best friends in real life, and I’m sure that helped their relationship seem more realistic on screen. Maribel Verdú conveys impatience, sensuousness, and vulnerability in a stirring performance. Basically, everything about this movie is exceptional and you should watch it.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and historical dramas, so I’ve been looking forward to watching this Ridley Scott historical drama for a really long time. I feel pretty connected to Jerusalem during the Crusades because I played the entire first Assassin’s Creed which is set in the same time period. I spent hours running around the rooftops of its simulated Jerusalem and fighting against the Templars, which is fairly similar to what Balian, the protagonist of Kingdom of Heaven does (minus the rooftops.) This movie is based on the real story of Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem, and Balian, Jerusalem’s defender.

Balian’s story is heavily fictionalized – in the movie, he is the bastard blacksmith son of a powerful noble who unexpectedly inherits his father’s barony in the Holy Land. He’s running from his sins and feels compelled to be the best knight he can be. Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Balian is probably the weakest part of this movie – he’s not bad at all, but he’s very bland. The movie is fantastic though, it’s atmospheric and epic, and the rest of the cast is terrific (Liam Neeson, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Alexander Siddig, Edward Norton) and not at all bland.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins has been out of a job for three weeks and needs money to keep up with his mortgage and bills. He’s offered $100 for what seems like a simple job to find a woman last seen in the company of the local African-American community, but soon realizes that he’s mixed up in something out of his league. This is a classic hard-boiled detective noir story set in 1940s L.A. and it stars Denzel Washington. It really draws you into the atmosphere of the time, including the ugly state of race relations, but it tells a focused story with some great characters. Don Cheadle is especially entertaining as Easy’s trigger-happy friend Mouse.

Monsters (2010)

I absolutely loved Rogue One, and I enjoyed the most recent Godzilla movie, so I was looking forward to watching Gareth Edwards’ breakthrough debut, Monsters. I was expecting it to be a horror movie based on the name and premise (two people make their way through an alien infested landscape) but it’s actually a great science fiction drama. The two lead actors (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) are married in real life and have great chemistry. The dialogue is very natural (I read that it was all improvised), and the worldbuilding is fantastic, I can’t remember the last time a movie made me so curious about the details of the world. It has a few rough edges – some of the dialogue seems a little odd, and it’s clearly made on a budget, but I can definitely see how this launched Gareth Edwards’ career, especially given that he was the writer/director/director of photography/sole visual effects artist.

Tin Cup (1996)

Bull Durham director/writer Ron Shelton and star Kevin Costner reunite in this movie about washed up golf course Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy who decides to enter the U.S. Open in order to win the heart of his newest student. It’s a little more comedic than Bull Durham, but has the same great formula of making a sports movie mainly about the people rather than the sport. Kevin Costner makes the main character seem like someone you actually know well, and that adds a big emotional payoff towards the end of the movie. I want to keep watching Ron Shelton’s movies – they might even make me want to watch more sports. I’m definitely more interested in golf now.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Pawn Sacrifice is a biopic of Bobby Fischer, the famous American chess grandmaster and arguably the greatest chess player of all time. Fischer’s brilliance came with serious mental issues, and those are the focus of this movie. Tobey Maguire plays Fischer fairly straight, and that makes his increasing paranoia all the more stark because you can see that he really doesn’t see reality any other way. Liev Schreiber is understated but really good as Fischer’s main opponent, Boris Spassky, and Peter Saarsgard plays one of the most reassuring characters I’ve ever seen on film as Fischer’s mentor, William Lombardy. It’s a pretty good movie overall, although it is slightly too on-the-nose occasionally.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

CIA researcher Joe Turner (codename “Condor”) returns from picking up lunch to find that all his coworkers have been murdered. Convinced that he’s been targeted for assassination as well, he goes on the run while trying to piece together what happened. This movie felt surprisingly modern for being made in 1975, it’s a compelling spy thriller with good performances (from Robert Redford and Max von Sydow especially.) I was mildly frustrated that Robert Redford’s character was sleeping with someone he’d kidnapped the day after his girlfriend had been murdered, but that seems like a problem with the genre rather than this specific movie.

A Perfect World (1993)

Escaped convict Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) takes a young boy named Phillip as a hostage and the two of them end up bonding as they try to evade the manhunt organized by Texas Ranger Red Garnett. This movie is directed by Clint Eastwood (who also plays Red) and as with all of his movies that I’ve seen (except Space Cowboys), it’s a good one. It’s pretty weird, though – although you can see and even sympathize with why Butch and Phillip bond, Phillip is still a hostage, and Butch can be quite violent. I don’t think many other people other than Kevin Costner could have pulled off his blend of charm and unpredictability so well. The movie fully acknowledges the complexity of the characters (just like Unforgiven) and left me feeling very conflicted.

Analyze This (1999)

A silly comedy about an insecure mob boss that goes to a psychologist and turns the psychologist’s life upside down in his quest to get over his anxiety and depression. I probably wouldn’t care about this movie except for the fact that Robert De Niro plays the gangster, and who can resist Robert De Niro? It’s exactly as silly as I thought it would be, it’s over-the-top, and it makes no sense, but the actors have good comedic timing, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny at times. I also enjoyed seeing Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro together and at odds again after A Bronx Tale.

Collateral Beauty (2016)

I really wanted to like this movie. It has an amazing cast (Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren) and a fascinating premise – a bereaved father writes angry letters to Love, Death, and Time and is surprised to actually receive answers. The acting is excellent all around, but Will Smith in particular did an incredible job, just looking at him made me want to cry. But the movie overall just wasn’t very good – it’s so determined to make you smell the roses (or in the movie’s terms, notice the collateral beauty) that it trivializes everything else, including characters’ real problems. It turns what could have been a profound movie into something trite.

The Gamechangers (2015)

Based on the true story of Jack Thompson, a moral crusader and lawyer, who went after Rockstar Games (the makers of Grand Theft Auto) for making video games that he alleged trained kids to be violent. This is a BBC docu-drama, and it doesn’t make sense for it to be reviewed to the same standards as an actual movie. It does have a couple of great cast members – Bill Paxton plays Jack Thompson with a lot of charisma, and Daniel Radcliffe plays Rockstar Games president Sam Houser as an awkward eccentric (he’s getting good at that archetype.) The rest of the cast is pretty iffy – there’s some bad acting, and most of the American characters are played by British people that are terrible at faking accents. Plus, the movie is trying so hard to portray both sides as sympathetic that it ends up saying nothing at all. But for a TV special, it’s definitely watchable.

“A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

The first thing I did after I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last month was pre-ordering this book, so it’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve been excited to read it.

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same universe as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and follows from the events of that book. It has a couple of shared characters, but it’s entirely standalone. We follow Lovelace, a sentient artificial intelligence designed to run a spaceship, who has been downloaded into a humanoid body because of circumstances not entirely in her control. AIs in bodies are illegal in the Galactic Commonwealth, and she has to figure out how to blend in as a human while staying under the radar. The secondary protagonist is Pepper, an engineer who helps Lovelace in part because of her past experience with AIs. We get to see how she grew up and eventually the story ties into Pepper and Lovelace’s present life.

I love the cozy feel of this story – it’s not something that I usually associate with science fiction, and I hope Becky Chambers keeps writing these kinds of stories forever. And this isn’t just science fiction, it’s good science fiction. Lovelace’s story reminded me a little of Breq from Ancillary Justice – she’s an AI trying to make sense of an existence she’s really not designed for, but their personalities and stories are very different. Breq was an imperial warship, but Lovelace is a friendly and accommodating AI designed to be as human as possible.

Lovelace and Pepper both have pretty screwed up circumstances, but they make the best of it and end up being really great people who are at peace with themselves. I think that’s what I love about these books – every character genuinely wants to be good. Sometimes things fall together in a way that seems a little too neat, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for it because it makes for such a good story.

I’m not sure if there’s going to be another book in this universe, I hope there is because Amazon has A Closed and Common Orbit labeled as “Book 2 of 3”, even though there’s no third book to be found. Regardless, I’m going to read whatever Becky Chambers writes next as soon as I can.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Wayfarers, #2)
Harper Voyager, 2017 | Buy the book

“Sins of Empire” by Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy is one of my favorite new fantasy series’, and I’ve been looking forward to the new trilogy set in the same world ever since Brian talked about it in my interview with him a couple of years ago. And now it’s finally out, and I’ve read it, and I thought it was even better than the first trilogy!

The new country of Fatrasta is ruled with an iron fist by the Lady Chancellor Lindet. Her secret police, the Blackhats, are almost everywhere, and where intimidation and arrests won’t work, there are mercenary companies. The famed powder mage Vlora leads one of these companies, and is suddenly called back from the frontier to deal with an insurgency within the capital city of Landfall. Of course, the insurgency isn’t as simple as it seems, and the long isolated Dynize Empire appears to be stirring again. It’s up to Vlora, her Blackhat liaison Michel Bravis, and disgraced Fatrastan war hero Ben Styke to figure out what exactly is going on and what it means for Fatrasta.

Sins of Empire is the start of a new standalone trilogy, and you can definitely read it without reading the Powder Mage trilogy – it’s set on an entirely different continent and only shares a few characters. That being said, I have read the Powder Mage books, so I’m going to be referencing them in this review (without spoilers.)

I love the flintlock fantasy subgenre in general, and the world of these books in particular. The gunpowder based magic system is one of the coolest ideas that recent fantasy has produced – I’m not sure why I love it so much, but it probably has something to do with why I also love Westerns and cheesy action movies. Anyway, there are guns, there are printing presses and penny dreadfuls, there’s exploration of colonialism without making anyone the bad guy. The world seems like it’s vibrant and changing quickly, and it really jumps off the page.

The characters are memorable – I already mentioned that there’s no cardboard cut out good guys and bad guys, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is morally ambiguous. There are antagonists, but you understand what makes them what they are. Vlora is an unusually compelling protagonist, she’s a veteran soldier in a committed relationship, she’s already pretty badass, but she’s also flawed and she knows it. Michel Bravis is a weaselly guy, but you’d expect that from a professional informant. Characters like him usually end up being sidekicks or useful friends for the protagonist to have, so he makes a fascinating viewpoint character too. Ben Styke is the most conventional protagonist, but he’s also well done, and I always looked forward to his segments too. Readers of the original trilogy will see some unexpected but welcome familiar faces (I totally called one of the characters the first time they appeared, which is probably useless information in a review, but I’m proud of myself and had to share it.)

The pacing is probably the weakest point of the book, but I’d only call it weak if I was trying really hard to find something negative to say. For the first half of the book, I had no idea what was going on or what the ultimate plot of the book was going to be, but once things started falling into place, the revelations kept coming. My only major complaint is that I want to find out what happens next, and I don’t know when the next book is coming out.

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan (Gods of Blood and Powder, #1)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Bull Durham (1988)

I like sports movies, but since I’m not a sports fan, I only like them so much. Bull Durham is exceptional, though, because it’s not just a good sports movie, it’s a terrific movie.

Veteran minor league baseball player Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) has been hired by the Durham Bulls to coach their young talented but erratic pitcher, Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) into the discipline needed to get into the big leagues. Thrown into the mix is Annie, a sought after baseball groupie who picks one player per season to attach herself to.

Writer and director Ron Shelton spent about five years playing minor league baseball, so I’m sure that contributed to the movie’s authenticity. Most of the movie just feels like slice of life – there are things that happen like Crash and Nuke not quite getting along, Annie being torn between being able to mentor Nuke and having a much more equal relationship with Crash, and so on, but none of that really is the point of it. At the end, you realize you’ve grown much more attached to the characters than you usually do after spending two hours on a movie, and the story that was told was actually pretty complete.

Other Movies Watched

Michael Clayton (2007)

After a high powered lawyer has a mental breakdown when defending a multibillion dollar chemical company, his firm brings in their “fixer”, Michael Clayton, to remedy the situation. Michael Clayton is the directorial debut of Bourne Identity writer Tony Gilroy, and it has the tense, tight pacing of a Bourne movie. In lesser hands, this would have been a run-of-the-mill thriller, but Gilroy turns into a great drama with has large supporting cast and multiple sub-plots which add to the atmosphere without detracting from the focus of the movie. Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for her performance as the general counsel of the chemical company, and the rest of the performances are pretty amazing too.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) is a legendary golfer from Savannah, Georgia who stopped playing after returning from World War I. He reluctantly agrees to play in an exhibition match to help save his ex-fiancee’s golf course, but he has extremely low confidence. A mysterious stranger named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) shows up and offers to be Junuh’s caddy and has a profound effect on both his golf game and his life. The Legend of Bagger Vance is inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture in which the god Krishna (Bhagavan) persuades the hero Arjuna to fight in a war. You can see this in the character names (it took me almost until the end of the movie to realize this) – R. Junuh is the reluctant hero, and Bagger Vance sort of sounds like Bhagavan. Anyway, this is a great, heartwarming movie, as expected from director Robert Redford. Matt Damon does a stellar job, he’s so good in his younger roles like this one. Will Smith is fantastic as usual, too. And Charlize Theron tends to steal every scene she’s in as Junuh’s stubborn ex-fiancee.

We Bought A Zoo (2011)

We Bought A Zoo is based on the book of the same name by Benjamin Mee, who (as the name suggests) bought a functioning zoo. The movie is very liberal with the facts – the real zoo is in the U.K., but the movie is set in California, for example, but the protagonist’s name is still Benjamin Mee. The movie’s Benjamin is struggling to get over the death of his wife and connect with his angry teenage son. When looking for a new home, he finds the perfect one – except for that fact that it’s a zoo and needs to be run as such. He decides to take the plunge and discovers that it’s a much bigger project than he realized. This movie is directed by Cameron Crowe, and I really like his style (he did Almost Famous, for example) – his movies have heart, but the people also seem realistic and not saccharine like a lot of other feel-good movies. Plus it’s always great to see Matt Damon – I can’t think of a movie that I didn’t like him in.

What Women Want (2000)

I’m always skeptical of romantic comedies, but I actually liked What Women Want quite a bit, probably because it was mostly about a character growing into a better person. Nick Marshall is a self-centered chauvinist advertising executive who gets passed over for a promotion because his boss wanted to hire a woman, Darcy McGuire. He’s desperate to prove himself, but doesn’t quite know where to start with advertisements for the new feminine product clients that Darcy is bringing in. He gets lucky when an accident leaves him able to hear women’s internal thoughts, but this newfound knowledge also starts changing him in unforeseen ways. This movie is strictly fun, it’s not realistic in any way, but Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt are charming and you can’t help but like it.

The Contender (2000)

When the vice president dies, the president picks Ohio senator Laine Hanson to be the next vice president. She has to go through a grueling confirmation process and there are factions that will go to extreme lengths to bring her down. Political movies are one of my favorite genres, and I enjoyed most of this movie. However, it got increasingly worse as it progressed – it started off as a great story where you didn’t know what the truth was and all the characters were morally ambiguous, but then turned into a obvious good guys vs. bad guys story with cheesy inspirational music and so on. Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, and Jeff Bridges put in great performances, though.

Sing (2016)

Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to save his theater and comes up with the idea of having a singing competition. A typo in a poster makes the competition much more popular than expected, and a comedy of errors ensues. I think I’m too used to Disney and Pixar movies, I thought this movie would be much better than it was. It really didn’t matter that the characters were humanoid animals (unlike the excellent Zootopia), and the plot was just a series of paint-by-number cliches that lacked any genuine heart. Also I don’t think the movie had a very good message – Moon’s character isn’t actually any good at what he does, he just really, really wants something, and he ends up getting it.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I love the Assassin’s Creed video game series, I think it has one of the coolest premises of all time, and the games do a pretty good job at getting you invested in the character arcs of their protagonists. I had high hopes for this movie, even after all the negative reviews – the game developers (Ubisoft) had a lot of creative control, and the cast had some great actors (Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons) – I thought maybe audiences just didn’t understand what made the story special. Unfortunately the negative reviews were right. Assassin’s Creed is technically well executed and the action scenes definitely pay homage to the gameplay aspects. But it has none of the warmth and humor of the games, and it takes itself way too seriously. The historical scenes should have been the meat and potatoes of the movie, but instead we get a modern, generic, sci-fi action movie that isn’t even very good.

“Green Rider” by Kristen Britain

Karigan G’ladheon has just been suspended from her school for getting into a fight with an influential noble’s son. As she’s making her way home, she runs into a dying messenger who asks her to deliver his message to the king. She agrees, but what she thinks will be a simple journey turns into something much bigger when she is chased by agents of a mysterious power and encounters magic that she thought was long dead.

If I had one word to describe Green Rider, it would be “mediocre”. It is a pretty standard fantasy novel – we have the reluctant hero with latent magical powers, a long journey where the hero is chased by a representative of a long-dead evil, an intelligent mount, etc. In concept it’s probably most similar to Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. I usually don’t have a problem with fantasy clichés (see my review of The Shadow of What Was Lost for example), but I don’t think this book ever rose beyond its clichés.  Karigan was an extremely bland protagonist, even after reading the entire book, I couldn’t tell you anything about her personality. Other characters seemed to just do whatever the plot required of them.

I don’t think I will be continuing with other books in this series.

Green Rider by Kristen Britain (Green Rider, #1)
DAW Books, 1998 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 12-18, 2017

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Calogero Anello is a young Italian-American growing up in a mob-dominated part of the Bronx. He’s fascinated by the gangster lifestyle, and idolizes the local boss, Sonny. As he grows up, he’s influenced by both his father Lorenzo, a law abiding bus driver who wants nothing to do with organized crime, and by Sonny, who has taken a liking to him. Both men are at odds with each other, but share the same concerns for Calogero. Robert De Niro plays Lorenzo to perfection, and he also directs the movie incredibly well (in his directorial debut.) Chazz Palminteri plays Sonny, also to perfection, and he also wrote the movie (based on his own life story.)

Gangster movies are not my favorite genre. There are some amazing movies that happen to be gangster movies, but I still don’t look forward to a movie as much if I know it’s about gangsters. I like movies about characters growing, not characters being scary human beings that I wouldn’t want to go near. Luckily, despite being advertised as one of the best gangster movies of all time, A Bronx Tale is actually a coming of age story. It reminded me most of Boyz in the Hood – Calogero grows up in a neighborhood and around people that are pretty screwed up, but he’s lucky in that he ends up with good father figures. It’s a heartwarming movie, and I can see myself watching it many times in the future.

Open Range (2003)

I love Kevin Costner and westerns, and especially westerns directed by Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves is amazing), so I was pretty excited about Open Range. Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall play “free grazer” cowboys who follow their cows around wherever they happen to wander. They run afoul of a ruthless land baron in the town of Harmonville and are eventually put in a position where they have to take a stand against him. I thought this movie was fantastic – the acting, the landscapes, the details – they were all just right. I loved Robert Duvall in particular. There’s also a pretty unique fight scene at the end, the action happens in real-time, and it’s one of the most realistic action scenes that I’ve seen.

The Young Victoria (2009)

The story of Queen Victoria’s early years, starring Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as her husband, Prince Albert. Many costume dramas are slow and ponderous, but The Young Victoria is not one of those. Emily Blunt really breathes life into her character, she’s young, naive, curious, and stubborn. Victoria’s life is fascinating, she grew up under the thumb of her mother and her mother’s comptroller who actually developed a formal system for making sure she ended up dependent on them as an adult. As soon as she reached her majority, Victoria completely rejected the system, and it is a joy to watch on screen. Her romance with Albert is well done and the period details seem more accurate than most movies (which makes sense since it was written by Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey.)

Shattered Glass (2003)

I had never heard of this movie before this week, but since we enjoyed Breach so much last week, we looked up the director’s other work. Shattered Glass is based on the real story of Stephen Glass, a reporter at the New Republic who either partially or completely made up many of the stories he wrote for the magazine. Hayden Christensen is extremely believable as the attention-seeking Glass, his character grates like nails on chalkboard (but because his acting is good, unlike in the Star Wars prequels.) Just like Breach, the story is told in a understated way, but it makes it all the more effective because it seems more realistic. I loved the supporting cast of this movie too – Peter Saarsgard and Steve Zahn especially.

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

We’ve been watching our way through Denzel Washington’s entire catalog, and A Soldier’s Story is his second major movie. A black officer (played by Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in the Jim Crow South during World War II. He’s greeted with suspicion and resentment, and his investigation is regarded as pointless because it’s taken for granted that the local Ku Klux Klan killed the sergeant. Of course, the truth isn’t as simple as it seems, and racism isn’t always straightforward. I thought this was a great, thoughtful movie with realistic characters and some powerful acting. Just like great movies like 12 Angry Men, A Soldier’s Story challenges us to think beyond the “obvious” conclusions and evaluate situations based on facts.

A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year is a romantic comedy directed by Ridley Scott, featuring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard. “Ridley Scott” and “romantic comedy” aren’t usually things you associate in the same sentence, but I really enjoyed Matchstick Men, which was also out of Scott’s usual genre. I was pleasantly surprised, this movie was actually pretty good – weird, but good. Russell Crowe plays against type as Max, a workaholic womanizing bond trader. Max inherits the French chateau that he spent his summers at after his uncle dies, and it upends his life. He begins to see an alternative to his high-flying lifestyle, meets a woman he can really appreciate, and even though he fights against it, he sees his life clearly for the first time in a while. A Good Year is a “quirky small town” kind of movie, and I love those. Plus the cast and atmosphere are great.

13 Going on 30 (2004)

After Jenna has a humiliating 13th birthday party, she wishes that she was thirty and is magically transported forward in time where all of her dreams have come true and she is an editor at her favorite fashion magazine. Her life may seem perfect on the surface, but Jenna finds that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – she has turned into a pretty unlikable person and lost touch with her childhood best friend, Matty. I don’t think any movie could do the “kid in an adult body” trope better than Big, and 13 Going on 30 definitely isn’t in the same league. It’s mostly a dumb romantic comedy rather than a character growth story, and given the genre, it was better than I thought it would be. Mark Ruffalo is reassuring as usual, and Jennifer Garner does a credible job acting like a 13 year old that’s out of her depth.

Batman (1989)

I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve never actually seen the earlier Tim Burton & Joel Schumacher Batman films until now. Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson plays the Joker (who gets the origin story of the movie.) It took me a while to get used to a Batman that didn’t take himself that seriously, and wasn’t even that screwed up, but Michael Keaton eventually grew on me. I don’t think this movie has aged very well, though. My primary reaction to it was boredom, I don’t think anything about it was bad, but it just didn’t engage me. Maybe it’s because it assumed that the audience thought comic books were silly, and it wasn’t even trying to make an emotional connection?

John Q. (2002)

John Q. stars Denzel Washington as a desperate father who doesn’t have the money to pay for the heart transplant that his son needs and holds up the hospital to force them to provide the transplant. I was looking forward to it because it’s a Denzel Washington movie, but boy, is it terrible. It’s cloying and melodramatic to a fault, the characters are just cardboard cutouts, and even then they make no sense and just do whatever the plot needs them to do. The plot has gaping holes in it. Not recommended.

Review & Giveaway: “The Collapsing Empire” by John Scalzi

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

The Inderdependency is an interstellar empire that has flourished for over a thousand years, ruled by the emperoxes of Hub and built upon the backbone of the Flow – an extradimensional field that makes faster than light travel possible. Imperial bastard Cardenia Wu-Patrick has just ascended to the throne, and she is woefully underprepared, having spent most of her life out of the spotlight assuming her brother would be emperox. Just as she comes to terms with her new responsibility, she learns that the Flow is collapsing, and that means the empire will soon be gone and humanity might go with it. It’s up to her to figure out how to save the empire. with help from noble merchant Kiva Lagos and Flow physicist Marce Claremont. I’m always excited for a new Scalzi book – I think of his work as popcorn science fiction. It’s light reading and it’s usually got a pretty good sense of humour, but it’s also science fiction so it has some cool ideas. I was especially looking forward to The Collapsing Empire because I like space opera, and Scalzi’s other space opera universe (Old Man’s War) hasn’t been doing much new worldbuilding in recent installments.

The Collapsing Empire met all of my expectations, but still managed to be somewhat different from Scalzi’s other work. It’s grander in scale (more operatic in space opera terms) than the Old Man’s War books, it focuses more on the empire and the larger story of humanity than it does on individual people’s character arcs. The characters don’t really grow or change, they are just the viewpoint from which we see the next great change in human history unfold. I mean, you still empathize with the characters, there are some emotional moments, particularly for Cardenia, but the focus is definitely not on those elements. This book is also a little more adult-themed than Scalzi’s usual work – there’s politics (intrigue, betrayal, plots, etc.), more explicit sex scenes (which I don’t remember Scalzi doing before), and a lot of swearing (mostly courtesy of the Lagos family.)

I had a couple of problems with the book. One of them is that I think I was supposed to like Kiva Lagos (Scalzi has called her one of his favorite characters ever), but I thought she seemed like a terrible person. I can appreciate a good greedy merchant (Quark is one of my favorite characters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) but Kiva didn’t seem to have any heart, even though she mostly ends up being on the side of the good guys. Another problem is that I felt like the book didn’t tell a complete story, it seemed like it was just moving things into place for the rest of the series Most of the book revolved around getting people to acknowledge that the Flow was collapsing, and it was a serious problem and the antagonists’ plans didn’t seem to make a huge difference to the grand scheme of things. Also, sometimes the characters’ propensity for quips in serious situations can get annoying, but that’s something Scalzi does in all his books and I know to expect, so it wasn’t a real problem.

There are plenty of good things about this book, though. Most of the characters are easy to root for, and the antagonists aren’t just cardboard villains. There’s some good tension in the book when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. And the idea of humanity settling mostly on artificial environments like space stations and becoming reliant on interstellar commerce, then suddenly losing the ability for faster-than-light travel is fascinating. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, especially with the situation at the end of The Collapsing Empire.

Tor Books is letting me give away one copies of The Collapsing Empire! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “The Collapsing Empire” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until Mar 25, 2017.

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 (Tor Books, in this case) so that they can mail you the book, but they won’t ever see your email address.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (The Collapsing Empire, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Breach (2007)

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Unforgiven (1992)

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

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

A Passage to India (1984)

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

Lincoln (2012)

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

Antwone Fisher (2002)

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

Chain Reaction (1996)

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

To Sir, with Love (1967)

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 26-Mar 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Contact (1997)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Haywire (2011)

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

The Founder (2016)

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

Jackie (2016)

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

All The Way (2016)

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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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

The Tree of Life (2011)

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