“India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha

India-After-GandhiI’ve been wanting to learn more about history for a long time now, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start reading more history books. I started off with a book I’ve owned for about eight years now, but never got around to reading. I think I’ve been avoiding non-fiction because it takes me much longer to read and comprehend it, but I guess I should stop judging my reading by total number of books read.

India After Gandhi is a post-independence history of India; a subject I didn’t know a lot about, despite spending the first seventeen years of my life there. In school, our history books pretty much stopped at independence. It starts off with the Partition and the formation of the Indian government, and goes until 2007 (when the book was written), although the final two decades are not covered with the same level of historical detail (due to the events being too contemporary.)

The book is extremely comprehensive, Guha clearly did a lot of research – the bibliography is humongous. It covered the process of transitioning from British rule (highlighting administrative problems like integrating over 550 kingdoms into India, setting up free and fair elections for a largely illiterate electorate, and settling millions of refugees from Partition), subsequent politics, economic policy, social movements, and there’s even a chapter on popular entertainments. I learned a lot, I’m certainly a long way away from knowing all that I want to know about Indian history, but I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build on, and I wouldn’t have thought one book would have been able to do that. It also gave me the historical context to understand several things I’d been confused about when I lived in India (like the history of the political parties and how they came to have the positions they did, and how the Indian states came to be organized in their current configuration.)

Guha does an admirable job of approaching things from a historian’s point of view, you can see that he has his own opinions as an Indian citizen, but he makes it pretty obvious that they are his own opinions when they crop up. I’m sure there are biases in what he chose to talk about and how he presented it, but those are unavoidable. My only complaint on that front was that Guha chooses to emphasize India’s successes, but doesn’t spend as much time talking about India’s failures. It’s not like he doesn’t acknowledge them, but because he doesn’t give them as much detail, they come across as relatively unimportant. For example, at one point he mentions that an election would be the first “free and fair” election in Kashmir, but all the talk of previous elections in the book so far had been about the heroic efforts of India’s Election Commission to set up elections that actually worked, so how did the Kashmir elections end up unfair?

Overall, I thought that this was a great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about India. It did make me very sad, though – seeing India start out with such well-intentioned and smart leaders and devolve into the mess that it is now.

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
Picador, 2007 | Buy the book

Movies Watched: Jul 3 – Jul 9, 2016

[Jul 3] “All the President’s Men” (1976)

all_the_presidents_menAfter watching Nixon, we were pretty excited to watch the other side of the story, so to speak. All the President’s Men follows the two Washington Post reporters (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, or “Woodstein” as they are called in the movie) who investigated the Watergate scandal and the related extensive corruption that it brought to light. It’s very similar to Spotlight, another investigative journalism movie I really enjoyed – it has the same matter of fact tone, even though it’s about a pretty serious story. It focuses entirely on the reporters and their investigation, it doesn’t get too melodramatic or show the bigger picture, and that’s a great choice, because it keeps the narrative tightly focused and interesting. Plus, you can’t really beat the combination of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. I wasn’t very familiar with the Watergate scandal, and I learned a lot – I had no idea there was so much shady stuff going on.

[Jul 5] “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)

grave_of_the_firefliesWe’ve finally resumed our Studio Ghibli movie watch; it ground to a halt because we’ve been watching them in the order they were made, and we really didn’t want to watch Grave of the Fireflies because it is so sad. The movie follows fourteen year old Seita as he tries to take care of his four year old sister Setsuko during the end of World War II in Japan. You see in the very first scenes that they both end up dead. I thought this would be an anti-war movie, and I guess it could be interpreted that way (the war is certainly portrayed horrifically), but it’s really about Seita’s determination to take care of his sister making him so proud that he refuses help and eventually ends up bringing about the thing he was so determined to avoid. It’s based on a semi-autobiographical short story by author Akiyuki Nosaka, whose younger sister died under similar circumstances. The movie is beautifully animated, and it will definitely make you cry. I’d recommend it to everyone, but especially to people who think animation can’t evoke emotions like “real actors” can.

[Jul 6] “Only Yesterday” (1991)

only_yesterdayA continuation of our chronological Studio Ghibli watch. We skipped Kiki’s Delivery Service because it’s one of our favorite movies ever, so we’ve seen it together many times already.

Only Yesterday follows 27 year old Taeko, who is an office worker on a vacation to the countryside. Throughout her vacation, she’s flooded with memories from her fifth grade, and she reevaluates her life and the choices she’s made. Like Grave of the Fireflies, this is pretty much just human drama, which is not the usual subject for animation, and it’s very well done. However, I didn’t get to enjoy the movie as much as I’d like because the English dub (which was released a day before we watched this movie; we had pre-ordered the Blu-ray) wasn’t very good, and it had a huge effect on how I perceived the characters. Daisy Ridley (of newly minted Star Wars fame) and Dev Patel (from Slumdog Millionaire and The Newsroom, among other things) do the voices of the two main characters, and they either don’t know how to do voice acting or they were extremely badly directed – they either sound bored or fake-excited most of the time. Under the circumstances, I don’t think I can give the movie a fair review, so we plan to re-watch it with the original Japanese audio and English subtitles soon.

[Jul 7] “Titan A.E.” (2000)

titan_aeAnimation is taking over our lives! We’ve been watching a bunch of Japanese anime in addition to our usual movies, and for some reason we’ve been reluctant to watch anything live-action.

In the year 3028, humanity has expanded to space, made contact with a bunch of alien species, and is about to unveil a revolutionary new spaceship, the Titan. An alien race called the Drej are alarmed at the progress of humanity and proceed to destroy Earth. Fifteen years later, Cale Tucker, the son of the chief scientist of the Titan, is recruited by the crew of the spaceship Valkyrie to help track down the Titan and restore humanity’s hopes. I love space opera, and this one is pretty entertaining. It’s got a great voice cast too, especially Matt Damon as Cale. It’s not very complex, it just jumps from action scene to action scene, but there are some pretty weird and beautiful places it takes us to along the way.

[Jul 8] “The Saint” (1997)

the_saintThe Saint is based on a character from the 1920s, who has also been the subject of a bunch of movies, television shows, and radio dramas. Val Kilmer plays Simon Templar in this incarnation, and he’s a master of disguise and high tech thief who works as an independent contractor. When he’s hired to steal the secrets of cold fusion from an eccentric scientist, he ends up falling in love with her, and they both end up on the run from the Russian Mafia. This was an interesting movie, I felt the the first half had a very different tone from the second half. Val Kilmer portrays the Saint almost too realistically, he seems intensely screwed up (starting with the first scene where the girl he has a crush on dies in front of him), as you’d expect from someone who changes identities so easily and flawlessly. The second half of the movie is just a goofy spy thriller (I mean, it involves cold fusion and the Russians!), and I found the transition a little jarring. Other than that, it’s a decent movie, and Val Kilmer is great as usual.

[Jul 9] “Self/less” (2015)

selflessDying real estate tycoon Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) undergoes a black market procedure to transfer his consciousness into a new and younger body (Ryan Reynolds). At first everything goes well, but he soon discovers that his new body and the company that performed the procedure are not as straightforward as they seemed. I was looking forward to watching this movie because I love science fiction, and I think The Fall, one of the previous movies by the director (Tarsem Singh) is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I was let down; Self/less has an interesting premise, but it goes nowhere. It turns into a standard action movie, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it wasn’t so preachy and moralistic. Also, more importantly, none of the character motivations make any sense – Damian Hale does not act like himself after switching bodies, it’s unclear why the scientist performing the consciousness transfer procedure does pretty much everything wrong, and the rest of the characters are just a bunch of cliches. Not recommended.

Movies Watched: Jun 26 – Jul 2, 2016

[Jun 26] “Wayne’s World” (1992)

waynes-worldWayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and his friend Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) host Wayne’s World, a silly but well loved public access television show. Their life becomes more complicated when they are discovered by Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe), who buys the show but wants to sell them out to a sponsor. Wayne’s World is a pretty silly comedy, it was derived from a Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s also apparently the movie that made Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen popular again (although I don’t know why it ever faded from popularity). I don’t have very much to say about it, I think it knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be and pretty much achieved it. I didn’t enjoy Mike Myers’ performance as Wayne, it seemed really exaggerated (compared to everyone else in the cast), but that may have been intentional.

[Jun 27] “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” (2001)

cowboy-bebop-the-movieA biological terrorist unleashes a deadly virus on Mars, and the bounty hunter crew of the Bebop must stop him before he is able to execute his master plan of releasing it all over the planet. I watched this after watching the entire Cowboy Bebop TV show (which I think is among the best shows ever made in any genre), so I’m not quite sure how to review this. I think it stands on its own, but I was just really excited to see Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein again. It’s got all the hallmarks of the show – the interesting science fiction, the noir, the music, the quirky characters, but it seemed a little diluted because the movie was so long (almost 2 hours) compared to an episode (~20 min). The Bebop isn’t usually in the business of saving the world, but I thought that it was worked into the story in a plausible way. But yeah, I can’t really review this objectively, I love Cowboy Bebop too much. Watch the show and watch this too!

[Jun 28] “Mallrats” (1995)

mallratsFriends Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. (Jeremy London) are dumped by their girlfriends on the same day and go to the mall to take their mind off things (and perhaps win back their girlfriends.) We’re watching all the Kevin Smith View Askewniverse movies in order, and this was next after Clerks. I didn’t like Mallrats as much as Clerks, actually I didn’t care for it much at all. I don’t think it was a terrible movie, it was just particularly average. It actually tried to have a plot, unlike Clerks, but I didn’t agree with the plot, I don’t think either of the couples involved had a good relationship, so I wasn’t exactly cheering for them to get back together. I liked the friends they ran into, but every time it focused on the main plot, I was bored. Jason Lee has great comic timing, though.

[Jun 29] “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” (1995)

to_wong_foo_thanks_for_everything_julie_newmarThree drag queens (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo) are driving from New York to Los Angeles when their car breaks down in a small town in middle America. At first they are afraid of being ostracized, but they end up learning more about themselves and also improving the lives of their temporary neighbors. I was looking forward to watching this movie because I’m a big fan of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which shares a similar concept, but unfortunately this was nowhere near as good. I found the portrayal of the Snydersville residents overly stereotyped (all the sexual harassment that was mostly just played for humor, the wife beating) and the problems too easily solved. I understand that it’s a comedy, but there are plenty of comedies that respect humans more. On the other hand, all the drag queens did an outstanding job, especially Patrick Swayze. Also, uncredited Robin Williams cameos are great.

[Jul 1] “Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion” (1997)

neon-genesis-evangelion-the-end-of-evangelionThis movie is an alternate/concurrent ending to the show Neon Genesis Evangelion (which had a pretty unsatisfactory last two episodes because it ran out of budget.) The secret organizatiom SEELE attacks NERV just as The Human Instrumentality Project is being initiated. Meanwhile, Shinji and Asuka are having a really hard time. Unlike Cowboy Bebop: The Movie reviewed above, this doesn’t really stand alone at all, so I recommend watching the show first. This is a pretty depressing end to a pretty depressing series (although the show lulled me into thinking that it might be fun for a while), mainly because it explores psychological issues in a really intimate and uncomfortable way. I was glad to see the real world perspective of the events of the last two episodes of the show, and I was also glad that the characters had some resolution.

[Jul 2] “Nixon” (1995)

nixonAs should be obvious, this movie is a biography of the enigmatic Richard Nixon, the only U.S. President ever to resign. This is one of the three “American Presidency” movies by Oliver Stone, and the only one I hadn’t seen yet – I really liked both JFK and W. We started watching this back in November, but it’s pretty uncomfortably shot, and Nixon is not the most upbeat character, so we decided to stop. Watching Evangelion inoculated us against discomfort, so watching Nixon now was a much easier experience. It’s clear that Oliver Stone isn’t exactly sympathetic towards Nixon, but just like with W, he manages to make the man himself pretty sympathetic. Nixon was apparently well known for being very formal and not showing his feelings, and Anthony Hopkins does a really good job of playing him; he’s smart and well-intentioned, but also tortured and possibly ruthless. The movie doesn’t actually feel that long, despite being 3 hours and 32 minutes long, it switches between different time periods of Nixon’s life, and we get a fairly well rounded picture of his life and why he is the way he is. I wished it had focused more on his successes, because he definitely had a few of those, but that would have made the tone of the movie too different, I guess.

Movies Watched: Jun 19 – Jun 25, 2016

[Jun 19] “Gone in Sixty Seconds” (2000)

gone-in-60-secondsRandall “Memphis” Raines (Nicolas Cage) used to be the best car thief in L.A., but he’s long retired. He’s forced to reunite with his old crew and steal 50 (very specific) cars in one night to save his brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi) from the clutches of a vicious new crime boss. This movie was entertaining, but it wasn’t great. The crew was pretty generic (they have their own quirks, but they don’t stand out that much and the plot was predictable, but it was fast paced and the action was fun. The cast is pretty great, although they don’t have a lot to do. I haven’t watched the older movie that Gone in Sixty Seconds is is a remake of, so I can’t compare it.

[Jun 20] “Virtuosity” (1995)

virtuositySID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) is a virtual reality serial killer personality prototype being tested on cop-turned-convict Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to see if he would make a good training program for cops. When SID realizes he’s in danger of being shut down, he manages to download himself into a nanomachine android body, and now he’s loose on the streets killing real people, and only Parker Barnes can stop him. This was a terrible movie, it was full of cliches, the plot was stupid and didn’t have much internal consistency or sense, the stakes kept being raised arbitrarily, and the dialogue was terrible. I can’t believe that this movie was so bad with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in it. The only good thing I can say is that Crowe looked like he was having a lot of fun hamming it up.

[Jun 21] “Invictus” (2009)

invictusThe true story of the South African national rugby team (led by captain Francois Pienaar) winning the World Cup and their importance to South African national unity after apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela became president. This was definitely a good movie, Morgan Freeman did a really convincing job as Mandela and Matt Damon was almost unrecognizable as Pienaar with a South African accent and what seemed like a false nose. The story was told well, we really get a sense of the difficulties of leading such a divided nation, there are a variety of different attitudes shown, and not all of them are resolved (the scene where Pienaar tries to get the mostly white South African rugby team to learn the new Xhosa anthem particularly stands out.) The one issue I had with this movie was that the narrative seemed a little scattered, it seemed more like an anthology of life in South Africa, because it focused on so many different people. When Pienaar’s team won the World Cup, I wasn’t sure what obstacles they overcame, or why the win was important – maybe a South African has all that context already, but I don’t. Otherwise, it was a great movie, and I’m glad it was able to avoid many of the usual sports movie clichés.

[Jun 22] “The Departed” (2006)

the-departedAn undercover cop in a criminal organization, and a cop who is secretly working for the same criminal organization attempt to find and expose each other before they are exposed themselves. I’ve seen this movie multiple times before, and it remains one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The usually likeable Matt Damon is utterly despicable as the dirty cop, and Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant as the tortured undercover cop who is forced to go against his morals to keep his cover. The rest of the cast is amazing too, Jack Nicholson is terrifying as the unpredictable mob boss, Mark Wahlberg is delightful as the principled asshole (and steals the show whenever he’s in it), and I can’t think of anyone more reassuring than Martin Sheen as the cop running the undercovers. The movie is perfect in every other way too, it’s paced well, it really invests you in the characters, it keeps the right amount of tension going without ever creating it artificially. I love this movie.

[Jun 23] “Doc Hollywood” (1991)

doc-hollywoodHotshot young doctor Benjamin Stone (Michael J. Fox) causes an accident in the small town of Grady while heading to an interview in Hollywood for a prestigious and well paying plastic surgery job. As punishment, he is ordered to do community service in Grady for a few days, and gradually ends up falling for a local woman and the town itself. This is pretty much the Pixar movie Cars, but with human protagonists. It’s really hard for me not to love a movie with Michael J. Fox playing the protagonist, he seems to cart a whole bunch of heart with him in every movie, and this one is no exception. All the Grady residents are great, and I can totally see why he’d fall in love with the town. I thought that Benjamin’s relationship with Lou, while definitely still following romantic comedy tropes, was a lot better developed than most within the genre. There are some fun genre-savvy scenes in the movie, too. Also, Woody Harrelson was great!

[Jun 24] “The Basketball Diaries” (1995)

the_basketball_diariesJim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a teenager with a promising basketball career, but he starts to lose it all when he becomes addicted to heroin. This is a pretty harrowing movie to watch, Leonardo DiCaprio does a terrifyingly good job of playing an increasingly desperate drug addict. You see him as a fairly normal teenager, but his best friend is dying of leukemia, his school and home environments aren’t very supportive, he’s dealing with puberty and sexual frustration, and he slowly falls into the habit of using drugs to escape. As his addiction gets worse, he leaves home to live on the streets, and things get pretty bad there. It was a very well made movie, my only complaint is that the ending seemed a bit sudden, we see Jim’s descent into drugs in a lot of detail, but it all seems resolved very quickly. Also, the poetry throughout the movie (even though it is the real Jim Carroll’s poetry) made it seem a little pretentious sometimes.

[Jun 25] “Sicario” (2015)

sicarioFBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited into a special government task force led by DoD advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to fight Mexican drug cartel leaders. Her experience in the task force isn’t what she expected at all – she’s not told very much or expected to participate and the methods used to achieve the task force’s goals are pretty questionable. I was disappointed by Sicario, although I had high expectations because of the trailer and the reviews I had read. It’s unquestionably well shot and well acted, especially Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. I guess I was just kind of bored by it, it’s main message seemed to be that idealism is dead, but it doesn’t really establish idealism in the first place (unlike say, Syriana, which shows you exactly what you’re losing) so I wasn’t really invested in any particular outcome or story.

Movies Watched: Jun 12 – Jun 18, 2016

[Jun 12] “Kate and Leopold” (2001)

kate-and-leopoldKate (Meg Ryan), an executive with a soulless job, meets Leopold (Hugh Jackman), the 19th century Duke of Albany who has come through a rift in space time discovered by her ex-boyfriend. Initially they don’t get along, but then they fall in love. This was a terrible movie, I don’t have much to say about it. Meg Ryan plays an absolutely awful character as usual (our current theory is that she plays such terrible characters so that women can think “if she could get that guy, so could I”) and I don’t understand why anyone would be in love with her. Hugh Jackman is fine, but he’s supposed to be the perfect guy. The dialogue is terrible. I found the side characters and the mechanics of time travel interesting, but there’s pretty much no time spent on that.

[Jun 12] “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004)

the_manchurian_candidateRaymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is a celebrated war hero and rising political star from a dynasty of politicians. As he makes a bid for the vice presidency, his former commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and other squadmates who Shaw supposedly saved struggle with nightmares of brainwashing and the strong sense that their memories are wrong. I really enjoyed this movie. Both Washington and Schreiber play tortured men very, very well. Meryl Streep is absolutely terrifying as Shaw’s mother and fellow senator. The movie is paced very well, it’s a tense thriller that always has you feeling a little anxious, and it never lets you down when things are revealed. I’ve never seen the original movie or read the book that this is based on, I understand that there are significant differences, but I think it stands very well on its own.

[Jun 12] “The Ref” (1994)

the-refWhen small time thief Gus (Denis Leary) takes dysfunctional couple Caroline and Lloyd (Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey) hostage, he gets way more than he bargained for as they seem more interested in hurting each other than anything else. If that wasn’t bad enough, their in-laws and son show up for Christmas dinner, and they’re even more dysfunctional. This was a Christmas movie in a twisted sort of way, so things don’t turn out too badly in the end. Kevin Spacey can deliver cutting remarks like no one else, and Denis Leary plays the hapless Gus very well as he alternates between annoyed at his situation, disgusted at the lack of communication within the family, and scared of being caught. I wouldn’t say this was a great movie, but it was entertaining.

[Jun 13] “Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

mission_impossible_iiiOur favorite IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time chasing after a villainous arms dealer who comes after his wife (yes, he has a wife now) in response. We watched the first two Mission: Impossible movies a while ago (before I started reviewing movies on this blog) and let the franchise drop for a while. The first two were pretty different from each other in tone, and this one changes the tone significantly as well, but it also makes it a lot less unique. This was J.J. Abrams’ film directorial debut, and it has the usual slick action and fast pace that he’s used in most of his movies. I think it also makes sense that it ended up being more generic, that’s what the Abrams Star Trek and Star Wars movies felt like to me too. Anyway, it was fun, and I liked seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy.

[Jun 13] “Life With Mikey” (1993)

life-with-mikeyMichael Chapman (Michael J. Fox) was once a famous child actor with his own sitcom about being an incorrigible troublemaker. Now he runs a children’s talent agency with his brother Ed (Nathan Lane), but he hasn’t really grown up at all. When he meets Angie, a charismatic and talented kid who could make him a fortune, he signs her, but soon realizes that she’s going to be a much bigger pain than he was prepared for. This movie is not exceptionally well made or anything like that, but it’s really cute and heartwarming and the characters make it great. You’d think there was no one better than Michael J. Fox at being incorrigible, but Christina Vidal does an excellent job as Angie. I love Nathan Lane too, and he’s also great as the long suffering but responsible part of the operation. Plus, David Krumholtz (in his debut) is delightfully obnoxious as Barry, the agency’s spoiled star.

[Jun 14] “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)

mission_impossible_ghost_protocolThe IMF is shut down after the Kremlin is bombed during an infiltration, and Ethan Hunt and his new team have to go rogue to get themselves cleared of blame. This movie follows the style established by Mission: Impossible III and is pretty much just another slick action movie, but as always, it’s fun. Pixar director Brad Bird does a great job with his first live action movie. I liked seeing Simon Pegg’s character return (with new skills!) from the previous movie, and Jeremy Renner is great as usual too (he seems to be in all the action franchises these days, he’s in Bourne and The Avengers too). My only complaint with this movie (and it’s not a real one) is that Josh Holloway should have been a member of the team, his death (not a spoiler, it opens the movie) was really sad because I enjoyed seeing him so much. Also, I didn’t find the villain very memorable.

[Jun 15] “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015)

mission_impossible__rogue_nationThe IMF is disbanded yet again, this time by slimy CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and its members are absorbed into the CIA. Ethan Hunt is branded a traitor and goes on the run while trying to stop a shadowy criminal organization called The Syndicate that no one else believes in. As usual, there’s great action (Tom Cruise actually strapped himself to the side of a plane as it was taking off, which is pretty amazing), and it’s slick and fast paced. It’s nice to see a majority of the team be people that we know from the franchise – Ving Rhames is back, as are Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. The villain (played by Sean Harris, who I’d never heard of) actually has some presence this time, and new addition Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson) is great as the femme fatale with ambiguous loyalties. I wish the IMF hadn’t been disbanded yet again though, it felt too similar to the last movie.

[Jun 16] “Rumor Has It…” (2005)

rumor_has_itSarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston), a recently engaged woman having an crisis of purpose, discovers that her family in Pasadena was the inspiration for the movie The Graduate, and decides to track down Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), the real life Ben Braddock. Her new obsession might just cost her her fiancé Jeff (Mark Ruffalo) though. This movie wants to be a coming of age movie, but it’s really a romantic comedy. I felt like all the female characters seemed like real people, but the male characters were just archetypes (which is unusual, but still not good.) Plus, I thought things worked out much too well in the end, the movie seemed to be advocating for men being doormats no matter how their partners treated them (both with Sarah’s story and her mom’s.) I don’t think I’ll be watching this movie again.

[Jun 17] “Matchstick Men” (2003)

matchstick_menThe lives of Roy (Nicolas Cage), a con artist with mental health issues and his business partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) are disrupted when Roy discovers he has a teenage daughter and endeavors to have a relationship with her. This movie is terrific! Nicolas Cage is fantastic as the quirky but sympathetic Roy, I think he’s one of the most underrated actors today. Roy is agoraphobic and obsessive compulsive, and he doesn’t really know how to have a relationship with his daughter, but he really does care. Alison Lohman plays off Cage very well as his daughter Angela. And Sam Rockwell melts into his role as always. Of course, it’s a movie about con men, so there are a lot of twists and turns, and as with any good con movie, all the clues are in plain sight all along. It’s one of the best examples of the genre, and unusually for a con movie (and a Ridley Scott movie), it’s also really heartwarming. Highly recommended.

[Jun 18] “Toys” (1992)

toysWhen Kenneth Zevo, owner of Zevo Toys, dies before his son is ready to inherit the company, he leaves the company to his militaristic brother General Leland Zevo. The General changes the entire direction of the company from whimsy to war, so Kenneth’s children Leslie (Robin Williams) and Alsatia (Joan Cusack) have to grow up and figure out how to stop him, with the help of a couple of other employees. This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen, it’s very surreal and whimsical (apparently it’s inspired by René Magritte’s art, which I’m not very familiar with. Watching this movie was definitely an experience, and clearly a lot of thought went into its look and tone. It’s always a pleasure to watch Robin Williams, and Joan Cusack was terrifically kooky too. Unfortunately, I think the movie wasn’t paced very well – some of the scenes were pretty long and boring, and even though the characters were interesting, they were a bit too weird to have much investment in. So it wasn’t a great movie, but it seemed like a great vision, and I’m glad it was made.

Movies Watched: Jun 5 – Jun 11, 2016

[Jun 5] “Wide Awake” (1998)

wide-awakeWide Awake is M. Night Shyamalan’s first wide release film, and it’s an entirely different genre than most of his later movies – it’s a comedy-drama. When ten year old Josh’s grandfather dies, he begins to question his faith and goes on a quest to find God for himself. He grows along the way and figures out more about both the world and himself. I was afraid that this movie would be hokey, but it was cute and poignant. All the kids do a great job, especially the actor who plays the precocious and smart protagonist. It’s definitely an indie movie, but I’d recommend it.

[Jun 6] “Wall Street” (1987)

wall-streetI probably don’t need to summarize Wall Street, but here goes: Bud Fox is an ambitious stockbroker who gets the chance to work with his idol Gordon Gekko, a ruthless trader of companies. He becomes successful, but he’s also involved in some pretty shady stuff, and eventually has to reconcile that with the values of his blue collar father. I love this movie, this was a rewatch, although I hadn’t seen it in about six years. It’s still just as good, and the “greed is good” speech is still very memorable (Michael Douglas is fantastic in this movie.) It’s also just a terrific story in terms of character arc, the ambiance is great, and it’s nice to see Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen play father and son.

[Jun 7] “Toy Story 2” (1999)

toy_story_2Andy’s toys are back! When Woody is stolen by a toy store owner in order to sell him to a museum, Buzz and a few more of the toys set out to rescue him. But Woody is enjoying his newly discovered life of fame as the star of the TV show Woody’s Roundup and isn’t sure if he actually wants to be rescued. Toy Story 2 cemented the franchise as one of my absolute favourite film series’, there’s adventure, fun, and tons of heart. Tom Hanks is really great as Woody as always, and I loved the new additions, especially Joan Cusack as Jessie the yodeling cowgirl.

[Jun 8] “Toy Story 3” (2010)

toy_story_3Andy’s off to college, and the toys accidentally end up in a day care center instead of the attic. The toys are initially happy to be played with instead of abandoned, but things quickly take a turn for the worse and Woody must figure out how to get them home. I don’t know what else to say about Toy Story 3 that I haven’t said before, but I absolutely loved it. I didn’t like the choice of the antagonist as much (it’s not a human), but that’s a minor quibble. There’s more adventures, more new toys, more Woody and Buzz, and even Sid makes a (non-terrifying) reappearance. And the end scenes made me really emotional. I’m so glad they’re making a Toy Story 4.

[Jun 9] “Blank Check” (1994)

blank-checkThis is a mediocre movie about a kid who sort-of-accidentally ends up with a million dollars and has a bunch of fun with it while also being chased by the ex-convict whose money it actually is. We watched it mainly because Joseph remembered enjoying it when he was a kid. It’s not terrible, it’s silly, there are some cute moments, but it’s also not remarkable in any way. Also the pseudo-romance with the older woman was a bit weird. Also, the main kid is played by the same actor who plays Worf’s son Alexander in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made me not want to watch the movie, but thankfully he’s a lot better in this movie.

[Jun 10] “The Cobbler” (2014)

the-cobblerAdam Sandler plays Max Simkin, a dissatisfied cobbler who has inherited his family trade. One day, he discovers that he can make shoes which allow him to transform into other people, and he ends up having adventures but also landing himself in a bunch of trouble, and he has to learn that no matter who he can become, he needs to be comfortable in his own shoes first. I wanted to watch this movie mainly because it was directed by the guy who did Spotlight, which I really liked, and this seemed like a feel good magical realism type movie, which I usually like. I did like it, although it wasn’t really comparable to how good Spotlight was. The ending was a little ridiculous, but that’s okay. Adam Sandler did a good job, he wasn’t too comedic, and both Steve Buscemi and Dustin Hoffman were great.

[Jun 10] “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002)

sweet_home_alabamaMelanie (Reese Witherspoon), a New York based fashion designer returns home to Alabama to get a divorce from her estranged husband to marry her fiancé, the son of the Mayor of New York City. However, despite being away for seven years, she quickly realizes how well she fits in in Alabama, and begins to reevaluate her life. I didn’t realize this was going to be a romantic comedy before I watched it, I thought it would be more of a coming of age type story. But this is actually a pretty standard romantic comedy. I liked the setting and side characters – small town humor is always great, but the main characters and plot were pretty stereotypical.

Movies Watched: May 29 – Jun 4, 2016

[May 29] “Signs” (2002)

signsPreacher Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives on a remote farm with his two kids and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). When crop circles appear in his fields, he initially dismisses it as a prank, but eventually from it becomes clear from both local events and news reports that aliens are involved. This is one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen, the tension builds really well, and I watched a lot of it with a blanket clutched to my face so I could hide behind it whenever needed. It’s a great movie, though. When I read the reviews of Signs on IMDB, I found that a lot of people hated this movie, mainly because they seemed to find the aliens implausible, but I didn’t think that mattered – just because aliens have spaceships don’t mean they have to have powerful laser guns and superior tactics and strategy (for example, see District 9.) I think the real genius of Signs is that it manages to accomplish being totally terrifying but actually being a drama, not a horror movie. There’s subtle comedy and character growth, plus Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are great.

[May 30] “The Karate Kid” (1984)

karate_kidDaniel, a kid who’s just moved to California from New Jersey, is bullied by a bunch of students who attend a karate school run by a really hardcore teacher. Mr. Miyagi, the handyman who works at the apartment complex Daniel lives in, offers to teach him better karate so that he can stand up for himself. The Karate Kid is obviously a pretty culturally significant movie, but I’d never seen it. It’s pretty good, though. The movie has a a pretty stereotypical story, but the characters elevate it, and the story doesn’t even matter. Ralph Macchio plays a great high school protagonist (I can’t believe he was 22 when filming this), he’s charming and sympathetic and cute. Pat Morita is also terrific as Mr. Miyagi, he’s definitely an enigmatic and gruff Yoda type, but he’s also generous and funny and has a poignant backstory that touches on Japanese-American prejudice in World War II. I also liked Elizabeth Shue’s Ali, her romance with Daniel is nice and uncomplicated. The end was a little abrupt, I wish we’d seen more of the aftermath, but I guess that’s what the sequels are for.

[May 31]  “The Town” (2010)

223902id1k_THE TOWN_27x40_1Sheet_0410.inddDoug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is part of a bank/armored car robbing crew from the notorious Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. While following a bank manager who may have witnessed one of the crew, he falls in love with her and dreams about moving on from his life of crime. His time is running out, though, since FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is hot on his heels. The Town reminded me of Heat a lot, they’re both realistic depictions of people that pull off heists, something that’s traditionally glorified in film. It’s got a similar atmosphere too, it’s slow and brooding, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Ben Affleck does a great job both directing and starring, but Jeremy Renner steals the show (and was nominated for an Oscar) for his portrayal of James Coughlin, Doug’s crazy best friend who has no illusions about their life. Blake Lively also does a really great job as the drugged up Krista Coughlin. I couldn’t find any significant flaws in the movie, but in the end I didn’t think it was something I’d be excited about re-watching either – maybe just because it told a fairly predictable story, and its tone made it somewhat joyless. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, though.

[Jun 1] “Toy Story” (1995)

toy-storyAnother classic movie that I’d never seen. When his owner Andy gets a shiny new spaceman action figure (Buzz Lightyear) for Christmas, cowboy doll Woody gets very jealous. His hijinks get him and Buzz lost just as Andy and his family are about to move away, so they have to find their way back while avoiding their vicious neighbor Sid and his experiments. I loved this movie, Tom Hanks does a really great job as Woody, and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear is pretty great too. This was Pixar’s first movie, and I can definitely see how it made them famous, it’s got their trademark heart. I always imagined that my toys would come alive when I wasn’t around too (I read a bunch of books that had that concept when I was younger), so it made me feel nostalgic to see that happen. My only complaint is that Sid’s villainy seemed pretty over-the-top, I mean, he’s just a guy that likes to build crazy stuff and blow things up, he doesn’t know the toys are alive. That’s a minor issue though.

[Jun 2] “Doom” (2005)

doomA group of Marines are sent to a research facility on Mars to investigate strange events that resulted in a group of scientists going out of communication. Of course, they find things that want to kill them and are very good at doing so. This movie is based on the popular Doom series of video games, which I’ve never played. I was excited about watching this movie, though, I didn’t think it would be good, but I thought it would be a fun action movie, plus it stars Karl Urban, who is one of my favorite actors to watch (he’s always so reassuringly gruff!) Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good at all. It was way more of a horror-thriller than I thought it would be, which I don’t usually enjoy. It didn’t do much original, it reminded me a little bit of Alien, except that Alien has a great atmosphere and world, and a lot of Resident Evil, but without as much style and fun. The dialogue is extremely clunky, the characters are one-dimensional, the action seemed pretty repetitive, and there isn’t even much variance in the sets. The only redeeming factors were a cool video game style first-person sequence for part of the movie, a brother-sister sibling relationship at the heart of the movie (rather than yet another one-dimensional romance) and of course, Karl Urban.

[Jun 3] “Zootopia” (2016)

zootopiaOfficer Judy Hopps has worked hard to be the first rabbit cop in Zootopia, but she finds herself stuck on parking duty. Desperate for a case, she shoehorns herself into the investigation of a missing otter, but with most police resources closed to her, she must rely upon con artist fox Nick Wilde that she met earlier. I absolutely loved this movie, it’s great! Both Judy and Nick are great characters, they’re irrepressible in their own ways, and you can’t help but root for them (props to Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman for the voice work.) The rest of the voice cast is great too, J.K. Simmons as the mayor and Idris Elba as the police chief stood out especially. Zootopia is a pretty cool world, it was clearly designed with a lot of little details. It’s well paced, the mystery that I thought would take the whole movie to solve is wrapped up sooner, but it also brought up more interesting questions for the rest of the movie. It’s got heart and it breaks stereotypes, and one of the main characters is a fox! What’s not to love?

[Jun 4] “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)

the_royal_tenenbaumsRoyal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) has decided that he wants to spend more time with his three former child prodigy children, and the whole family reunites in their very large childhood home. The Tenenbaums are a very weird family though, but they do finally come to terms with each other in their own weird way. I’ve been avoiding watching this movie for a while, Wes Anderson makes very particular kinds of movies, and this seemed even more Wes-Anderson-y than the rest. It’s actually really good though, despite the fact that I didn’t really like any of the characters that much. I was impressed by the acting, I’ve never seen Gwyneth Paltrow play a character like Margot before, and Ben Stiller is also great as the neurotic and depressed Chas. The movie reminded me a lot of Arrested Development, it’s narrated (Alec Baldwin does a good job with that), and it’s about a dysfunctional family that gets along in their own way. I’m not sure how to describe it, it’s quirky but it’s not just quirky, and it’s touching and funny and bizarrely cute.

Movies Watched: May 22 – May 28, 2016

[May 22] “Cocktail” (1988)

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

[May 23] “Bad Boys II” (2003)

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

[May 24] “Cloverfield” (2008)

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

[May 25] “Clerks” (1994)

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

[May 26] “Heavy Metal” (1981)

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

[May 27] “The Bourne Identity” (2002)

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

[May 28] “21 Grams” (2003)

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

Movies Watched: May 15 – May 21, 2016

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

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

[May 16] “Stargate” (1994)

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

[May 17] “True Romance” (1993)

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

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

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

[May 19] “Revenge” (1990)

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

[May 20] “Babel” (2006)

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

[May 20] “Spider-Man” (2002)

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

[May 21] “Green Zone” (2010)

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

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu

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

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

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

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

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

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