Movies Watched: Mar 11 – Mar 20, 2016

[Mar 11] “The Horse Whisperer” (1998)

the-horse-whispererWhen Grace (a young Scarlett Johansson) suffers from a traumatizing accident with the horse, her mother is determined to help her (and her equally traumatized horse) and finds a uniquely gifted horse trainer to help them. I was expecting an inspirational movie where Grace learns to conquer her fears, and there’s a lot of that, but the main focus of the movie is a romance between Grace’s mother Annie (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the “Horse Whisperer” Tom (Robert Redford). I don’t mind that the movie didn’t end up being what I anticipated, but I found the characters somewhat frustrating (more on that in the spoiler section below), so I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I’d have liked to. On the plus side, Montana is beautiful, and I enjoyed seeing the ranch life.

[Mar 12] “The Hateful Eight” (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterWe’re Tarantino fans, so we were pretty excited about his newest movie. Set sometime after the Civil War, eight strangers are trapped in a cabin together by a blizzard, but they all have hidden agendas and not everyone is going to leave alive. The Hateful Eight has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film: incredible atmosphere, non-chronological storytelling, extreme but cartoonish (and almost beautiful) violence, a pulpy revenge story. Maybe we’ve been watching too many of his movies recently though, or maybe my expectations were too high – it didn’t seem as original as his other movies (the tension between a group is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, and the setting is similar to Django Unchained), and it didn’t blow me away. It’s certainly nowhere near a bad movie though.

[Mar 12] “Our Brand is Crisis” (2015)

Our_Brand_Is_CrisisA weary political consultant (Sandra Bullock) is hired to help re-elect a controversial ex-President of Bolivia to office, and his main opposition’s campaign is being run a longtime rival. I thought this movie would be comedic than it ended up being, it’s a pretty jaded look at the world of politics. It’s not very subtle sometimes but I enjoyed the cast (or in the case of Billy Bob Thornton, really didn’t like him, which helped me be invested in the outcome of the Sandra Bullock’s character’s campaign). I don’t think this movie was great, but it was solid and I enjoyed it. (However, I’m automatically heavily biased towards enjoying political movies, especially set in foreign countries.)

[Mar 13] “Marie Antoinette” (2006)

marie_antoinetteA biopic of Marie Antoinette from her marriage to Louis XVI to the fall of Versailles. This was one of the most exceptional movies I’ve watched in the last few months; I thought it was brilliant. It’s a very sympathetic portrayal of Marie Antoinette (played by Kirsten Dunst), and Sofia Coppola (as usual) does an incredible job of conveying her isolation and disappointment with her new life. It’s not made in the usual biopic or historical drama styles, the storytelling is very contemporary and occasionally uses modern music (one particular montage set to “I Want Candy” stands out), but it’s very effective. Jason Schwartzman is surprisingly good in the role of Louis XVI, and it’s nice to see his relationship with Marie Antoinette evolve.

[Mar 13] “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014)

kingsman-posterHarry Hart (Colin Firth) recruits the unsophisticated but gifted son (Taron Egerton) of a former colleague into the Kingsmen, an independent spy agency, just in time to stop a maniacal tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) from unleashing a genocide. This movie is based on a comic book by the same author as Kick-Ass, and has the same sort of over the top storytelling, except applied to the James Bond type spy genre instead of the superhero genre. Everyone seemed to love this movie, but I didn’t think it was notably good. It was well-made, and it had a good cast playing against usual type (especially Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson), but it kind of reminded me a Doctor Who episode (which everyone still loves too). I didn’t really enjoy the humor or the violence, it seemed like a bad attempt at a sillier Tarantino movie. It was entertaining, though.

[Mar 14] “Enemy of the State” (1998)

enemy_of_the_stateA hapless lawyer (Will Smith) accidentally receives evidence implicating a corrupt politician who happens to have NSA’s resources to chase him down with. This is an extremely prescient movie about the dangers of the surveillance state, and it’s also a fun fast-paced action movie (it’s directed by Tony Scott, how could it not be). Gene Hackman is particularly great as the professional ex-NSA paranoid. Even the minor characters in this movie are often played by semi-famous actors, which is pretty cool.

[Mar 15] “Jack Reacher” (2012)

jack_reacherJack Reacher, an ex-military policeman investigates the case of a sniper who killed five random people with the help of the sniper’s defense attorney (Rosamund Pike). I hadn’t heard very much about this movie before I watched it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I enjoyed it very much. Tom Cruise plays a compelling intense loner, and the movie flouts a lot of the conventions of the mystery thriller genre. There’s good tension, the action is fun, and the plot is a bit convoluted, but who cares. I particularly enjoyed Robert Duvall’s character (and he’s from Ohio!)

[Mar 16] “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011)

extremely loud incredibly close

extremely loud incredibly close

Oscar, a nine year old in New York finds a mysterious key left in his father’s belongings after he dies during 9/11, and he’s convinced that he needs to find the lock that matches it. This is a touching movie about growing up and moving on (his grief is extremely sympathetic, but even more so because his dad is played by Tom Hanks, who has to be one of the most reassuring people on the planet), as Oscar goes through everyone in the phone book named “Black” (based on a note found with the key), and conquers many of his anxieties in the process. He also makes friends with a mysterious mute boarder living with his grandmother (played with panache by Max von Sydow). Thomas Horn does an incredible job of playing Oscar, who can be pretty obnoxious but you can’t help feeling for. Sandra Bullock also does a great job as his mom, I didn’t even recognize her until halfway through the movie.

I read this book a while back, but I don’t remember it very well, so I can’t judge the movie in relation to it, but I thought it was really good, and not too melodramatic despite the subject.

[Mar 17] “50/50” (2011)

5050-movie-posterAdam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27 year old living a pretty normal life until he’s diagnosed with a rare cancer. Given that Seth Rogen was in this, I thought it would be more of a comedy, but it’s another movie about growing up and getting in touch with who you really are (Seth Rogen’s character is still very crude and pretty outrageous, but he also has heart.) I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who doesn’t) and it’s great to watch his character be more confidently himself throughout the movie. Anna Kendrick usually plays pretty irritating characters, but she’s actually cute in this.

[Mar 17] “A River Runs Through It” (1992)

a-river-runs-through-it-posterBased on a true story, the movie is about two brothers from rural Montana, and their life growing up, figuring themselves out despite their strict upbringing, and doing a lot of fly fishing. This movie was directed by Robert Redford, who seems to love Montana (he also did The Horse Whisperer, reviewed above.) I don’t think this movie is about anything in particular, just the lives of the two brothers – Craig Sheffer plays the protagonist, Norman, and Brad Pitt plays his rebellious younger brother, Paul. Paul reminded me a bit of Brad Pitt’s character in Legends of the Fall, another rural movie where he’s somewhat wild, but he’s screwed up in different ways. I always like seeing movies set in times and places that I haven’t before – early 20th century Montana is new to me, and the movie establishes atmosphere very well. Recommended.

[Mar 18] “The Good Shepherd” (2006)

The-Good-Shepherd-movie-posterEdward Wilson (Matt Damon) has been a CIA company man for most of his life (from when it was the OSS). The movie starts off with an investigation into a leak about the Bay of Pigs invasion, and as he investigates, we see his whole career unfold in a series of flashbacks. This movie is directed by Robert De Niro (who I didn’t even know directed movies, and it’s both a great drama and a great quiet spy movie. The early history of the CIA is fascinating – I’d never really thought about how the very first spies were recruited. Matt Damon is really good as Wilson, growing more stiff and cold as he gets better at his job. I thought Angelina Jolie was a bit wasted as the alcoholic wife (I kept expecting her to do more), but she’s good, of course. Many of the minor characters are played by pretty notable actors, including a cameo by (ordinarily retired) Joe Pesci.

[Mar 18] “Focus” (2015)

focusVeteran con man Nicky (Will Smith) runs into old flame/protege Jess (Margot Robbie) during his latest scheme and he can’t stop obsessing over her. This was a very weird movie, both in its structure and its story. I usually enjoy movies about cons, they usually rely on misdirection, but I felt like things just happened in this one, and even when various cons were revealed, they didn’t have the whole “oh of course that’s what they did” moment that similar movies do. And cons are usually pretty far fetched, so without the proper structure, the ones in the movie just came off as being ridiculous. Not paying attention to cinematic conventions can be great when done well, but I feel like in this case, they just made it flat.

[Mar 19] “Primal Fear” (1996)

primal-fear-posterI’ve always avoided this movie because based on the name, I thought it was a horror movie, but it’s actually a courtroom thriller. Ambitious lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere) takes on the case of a young and guileless altar boy, Aaron (Edward Norton), accused of killing the Archbishop that gave him a home off the streets. Aaron was caught fleeing the scene covered in blood, but the truth isn’t always as clear cut as it seems. Edward Norton is amazing as Aaron, doubly so because this was his first movie. I liked the rest of the characters too, they were fleshed out much better than many other movies of this genre.

[Mar 19] “Dr. No” (1962)

dr_noWe’ve decided to go through all the James Bond movies in order. I’d only ever seen Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Skyfall, so I was looking forward to starting at the beginning with Dr. No.

James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a British agent and ends up uncovering a plot to disrupt the American space program by the nefarious Dr. No. It’s a fun movie, although I kept having to remind myself to view it through the lens of the times; the casual chauvinism was somewhat distracting, and some of Bond’s decisions seem pretty questionable. I didn’t know how many of the Bond conventions (the unique title credits, the music, the Bond girls, “Bond. James Bond”, etc.) were established from the very beginning, that was interesting to see. Sean Connery is great as Bond, I understand why everyone loves him now.

[Mar 20] “The 33” (2015)

the_33This movie tells the recent true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped inside a collapsed mine for 69 days. It’s a pretty formulaic movie; it’s not better or worse than any other movie of the “real life dramatic event” genre. I don’t know much about mining though, and I was pretty interested in the mechanics of solving a problem like how to rescue people in a closed cave 700 meters underground. Antonio Banderas plays the miner who takes charge and the story focuses the most on, which I was amused by because one of his subplots involves reassuring the other miners that he won’t put himself above everyone else as far as publicity goes.

[Mar 20] “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)

forgetting_sarah_marshallPeter (Jason Segel) takes a Hawaiian vacation to get over his recent break up with his girlfriend of five years, Sarah Marshall. Unfortunately for him, Sarah and her new boyfriend, Aldous have decided to vacation at the same resort. Although he runs into them constantly, with the help of resort employee Rachel (Mila Kunis), he starts to become himself again. This movie was cuter than I thought it would be; it resists the temptation to make either Sarah or her boyfriend into villains, instead reflecting that people can have good sides and still do really horrible things to other people. Russel Brand is really funny as the outrageous rockstar Aldous Snow, and Mila Kunis and Jason Segel have great chemistry.

Movies Watched: Mar 1 – Mar 10, 2016

[Mar 1] “Le Chef” (2012)

le_chefA French comedy starring Jean Reno as a veteran chef who is at odds with the owner of his restaurant, who wants him to modernize by cooking molecular gastronomy. He finds an unlikely brilliant sous chef who happens to not have any formal training, and together, they achieve culinary heights. Jean Reno is as reassuring as usual, and Michaël Youn is brilliant as the oddball perfectionist chef Jacky. It’s fast-paced, it’s funny, it’s cute, and it has a lot of heart. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did.

[Mar 2] “Great Expectations” (1998)

Great_expectations_posterAn adaptation of the Dickens novel set in contemporary America. Ethan Hawke plays the protagonist Finnegan Bell (Pip in the novel), a poor fisherman who is also a talented artist. When he acquires an unknown benefactor that provides him with an artist’s life in New York City, he assumes that it’s the eccentric Mrs. Havisham, who he spent a lot of time with growing up, and whose ward Estella he’s never gotten over. I enjoyed the movie, Ethan Hawke is great, and Gwyneth Paltrow drove me absolutely crazy as the untouchable Estella (as she’s supposed to). A lot of the more melodramatic aspects of the novel are removed, and I thought the movie told a tight story even if you’d never heard of the book. Also, both Robert De Niro and Chris Cooper are fantastic in this movie.

[Mar 3] “Amistad” (1997)

amistad-movie-posterThis Steven Spielberg movie tells the true story of the legal case of the survivors of the 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad. When the United States government captures the ship, abolitionists help defend the African captives’ right to be free from the several parties who claim all property on board, including the slaves – the Spanish government, the ship’s owner, the American men who found the ship. The movie was somewhat predictable, but I enjoyed it. I liked Matthew McConaughey as the main lawyer, and it was interesting to see the legal system of 1839. It wasn’t a very subtle movie though, especially with its constant foreshadowing of the Civil War.

[Mar 4] “Emma” (1996)

emmaEmma is my favourite Jane Austen novel (it’s certainly the most fun) and I was pretty excited about watching this movie. The poster (Gwyneth Paltrow shooting an bow) had me somewhat worried that they’d modernized it too much, but this was a very good adaptation. Emma is a young woman who is convinced that she is great at matchmaking, but her attempts fail and she has to learn that people aren’t as simple as she thought they were. The relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley is filled with banter, but it’s delightful. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a terrific Emma, she’s lovable but you also sometimes want to scream at how oblivious she is. And Jeremy Northam is dreamy as Mr. Knightley.

[Mar 4] “The Fifth Element” (1997)

The Fifth ElementIn the 23rd century, the universe is threatened by an all consuming Great Evil and the only thing that can save us is the Fifth Element. The cult that protects the secret of the Fifth Element is dangerously outnumbered. and it’s up to cab driver Korben Dallas to protect the Fifth Element and get her where she needs to be. This was a rewatch, and I love this movie. It’s silly, it’s cacophonous, and the story is pretty simplistic, but it’s so much fun and such a visual treat, and it’s got all the cool worldbuilding of something like Star Wars. Luc Besson is great at kickass women, and Leeloo is no exception, and Bruce Willis is perfect as the curmudgeonly ex-military protagonist. And Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod is a really memorable character.

[Mar 5] “Gosford Park” (2001)

gosford-parkDuring a shooting party at a country manor in England in the 1930s, the host is murdered, and nearly everyone in the house had the motive to kill him. The movie isn’t really about the murder though, it’s about the lives and secrets of both the guests and their servants below. It was written by Julian Fellowes, who you might know as the creator of Downton Abbey (which was originally supposed to be a spinoff of Gosford Park). This was also a rewatch for me, and it’s just as good as I remember it being. It’s a pretty quiet movie, it’s not very dramatic, but you’re really drawn into the world that it portrays. And the cast is great too – Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi…

[Mar 5] “Fly Away Home” (1996)

fly-away-homeWhen Amy Alden’s (Anna Paquin) mother dies, she has to go live with her crazy inventor father in Canada. She has a lot of trouble adjusting to her new life, but when some motherless geese imprint on her, she finds something to care about. But the geese need to migrate thousands of miles during the fall, and without a mother to teach them, her geese won’t know the way. Clearly the only solution is to teach them using a goose shaped low powered airplane (and this is based on a true story!) There are antics and there’s environmentalism and there’s even some villains, but when it comes down to it, this movie is just oodles of heart. Also, Jeff Daniels is extremely reassuring as the inventor dad who clearly cares a lot about his daughter.

[Mar 6] “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995)

mr-hollands-opus-movie-posterThis movie tells the story of Mr. Holland, an aspiring composer who gets a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills. His definition of a successful life slowly changes over his career, though. This was one of my favourite movies I’ve watched since we began watching a movie a day, it’s about growing up, and then growing up some more. Richard Dreyfuss is fantastic as Mr. Holland, he plays a very irritatingly real person. It isn’t a perfect movie – some characters are a bit cliched, the way the school was run seemed a bit extreme on occasion, especially at the end, but I loved it.

[Mar 6] “RED” (2010)

red_movie_posterWhen Frank Moses’ (Bruce Willis) peaceful Cleveland home is attacked by assassins, he reassembles his old “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” team to figure out who’s after them and why. This is a silly action movie based on a comic book, but it’s so much fun. First of all, Helen Mirren with a sniper rifle is something I’d apparently always wanted to see but didn’t realize until I saw it. Bruce Willis is in his usual form, and he’s a great action star. Plus Morgan Freeman! I also have an irrational crush on Karl Urban, so I love seeing him in things. My only complaint is that I find Mary-Louise Parker somewhat annoying, and she plays a really ditzy character, but that’s okay.

[Mar 7] “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)

Shakespeare-in-LoveA young William Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) play is about to start rehearsals, but he hasn’t actually written it yet, and he’s out of ideas. But then he meets and falls in love with a rich woman with a passion for theater, and he’s inspired to write one of his most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet. The movie is structured kind of like one of Shakespeare’s plays – there’s action and comedy and romance, and you can see that the cast is having so much fun. The conceit of being so meta could’ve been disastrous, but it is actually very well-executed (probably helped by the fact that the movie was written by Tom Stoppard, who is great at riffing off of Shakespeare  – he also wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). And the cast is excellent, the main characters of course, but I also enjoyed Ben Affleck as the actor Ned Alleyn and Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth.

[Mar 8] “The Big Short” (2015)

the-big-short-posterThe Big Short is about a bunch of (real-life) people who successfully predicted the recent housing market crash and were thought to be crazy but actually ended up making a boatload of money. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen recently, just because it’s told in such a fun way. I love movies that break the fourth wall, and this one does so constantly, even offering meta commentary on the movie. It does a great job of showing how much fun it is to screw over big banks while also keeping in perspective that the thing all these people bet on were tons of people losing their houses. The characters and actors are really good, of course. Christian Bale in particular plays a really convincing socially awkward genius, and Ryan Gosling was almost unrecognizable at first. I really like movies that talk about the world (especially politics and economics), so there’s no way I’d find this movie boring, but even if you think finance sounds boring, watch it! It’s fast-paced, it doesn’t dwell on exposition (it breaks the fourth wall instead to get the context over with) and I promise you’ll both enjoy it and learn something.

[Mar 8] “Mumford” (1999)

mumfordA psychologist named Mumford moves into a small town (also named Mumford) and has a huge impact on the lives of people there. It turns out that he might not be exactly who he says he is, though. This was a re-watch for me, it’s a cute feel-good movie where the solutions to people’s problems are pretty simple, if they would only look in the right places and learn to accept who they are. Mumford doesn’t have a very strong personality, but that’s part of what makes him reassuring. I also like the supporting cast a lot.

[Mar 9] “Burnt” (2015)

burntBradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, a chef who destroyed his career on drugs and bad behavior. Now he’s cleaned himself up and is determined to earn the third Michelin star that he was never able to get. We are big fans of both Bradley Cooper and cooking shows, so we had to watch this movie as soon as possible. It’s pretty good, Bradley Cooper is great as the intense chef who has already learned a lot from his mistakes, but still has something to prove. The fancy restaurant scene seems pretty cutthroat, and the movie can get pretty tense sometimes.

[Mar 9] “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2015)

second_best_exotic_marigold_hotelIn this sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (reviewed here), the hotel is doing really well and Sonny (Dev Patel) is pursuing financing to expand. His potential backers are sending an anonymous guest to check the place out, but there’s trouble when two new guests arrive with only one vacancy left. Plus, pretty much everyone has stuff going on on the romantic front. I didn’t think the movie was on the same league as the first one; the characters seem to have changed to fit the plot (especially Sonny’s mother), and there seemed to be a lot more silliness than heart. The cast continues to be great, and there are some touching moments, but overall, I was disappointed.

[Mar 10] “The Virgin Suicides” (1999)

virgin_suicidesA group of boys are fascinated by the five Lisbon sisters, who live an extremely strict and sheltered life, but are clearly unhappy in it. I’m not really sure how to describe this movie but I thought it was incredible. This was Sofia Coppola’s first movie, and she’s apparently always been really good at realistic and sympathetic women that are also lonely (and usually in pretty crappy situations). She also captures being a teenager extremely well, both from the boys’ side and the girls’. The story of the Lisbon girls seems almost dreamlike, because how could a story like that happen in a normal suburban neighborhood, but it’s also painfully real.

[Mar 10] “Friday” (1995)

friday-movie-posterTwo friends, Craig and Smokey, have to figure out how to get their drug dealer $200 by the end of the day. Along the way, they smoke a lot of weed and have some encounters with their friends and neighbors, mostly from their front porch. I haven’t seen a lot of stoner movies, but I found this one pretty funny. There aren’t a lot of crazy adventures for most of it, just two friends hanging out. Chris Tucker is great (as usual) and Ice Cube plays a good straight man (and also apparently wrote the movie.)

“Every Heart A Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

every_heart_a_doorwaySeanan McGuire is one of the most prolific fantasy writers out there today, but I hadn’t read anything by her yet. I was pretty excited to get a copy of Every Heart A Doorway to review. Also, I’ve been intrigued by the new imprint dedicated to publishing short fiction, and so I was doubly excited to finally read a book published by them.

Any fantasy reader is familiar with portal fantasy, but once you’ve found your portal, being forced back into the mundane world can be harrowing experience. This is where Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children comes in – it is a school dedicated to helping children who have lost their way to the fantasy world they once lived in. We follow Nancy, newly returned from the Halls of the Dead who wants nothing more than to go back, but instead she ends up in a school for misfits just like her. And just as she’s getting used to her life, her schoolmates start dying.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book, where the rules of the worlds are explained and Nancy adjusts to her new school. The classification system for other worlds is fascinating, and so is learning about the different worlds that each of the people we meet went to. McGuire’s prose is lovely, especially when describing what these worlds mean to each of the characters – she actually makes being surrounded by spiders and living in a classic horror movie with reanimators and vampires sound appealing! The characters are as diverse as the worlds they claim home, but you can see how neatly the world matches their personality. I wasn’t really able to identify with Nancy’s desire to be a living statue, but she seemed like a pretty well-adjusted person otherwise.

The second half of this book isn’t bad in any way, but it does switch gears into being a murder mystery. I’m a little bit tired of the murder mystery trope in general, and this novella was short enough that I don’t think there was enough time to build suspense. The murders happened really close together, and the resolution happened pretty quickly too. Plus, it still continued the story of Nancy’s acceptance of who she was and her life, so it felt like the book was trying to do a bit too much. I think it would have been a really great book if it had stuck to one of the two plots (I liked Nancy’s coming of age plot more), or maybe if it had been longer. As it is, though, I’d just call it good. I’d still recommend it, though, and I’ll be seeking out more of McGuire’s work.

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Movies Watched: Feb 21 – Feb 29, 2016

[Feb 21] “The Kingdom” (2007)

Layout 1This movie follows a squad of FBI agents (played by Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman) investigating a bombing of the American compound in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia. Political action thrillers are one of my favourite genres, especially when they’re set in other countries. I enjoyed the cultural clashes and the evolving relationship between the Saudi native guide and the FBI team. It was also nice to see Jason Bateman play a little bit against type.

[Feb 22] “The Butler” (2013)

the_butler-posterI’d heard a lot about this movie – Forest Whitaker playing a White House butler that serves decades worth of presidents. Forest Whitaker’s a great actor, and the movie had a really compelling premise, but I didn’t enjoy it very much. The movie ended up being pretty much entirely focused on civil rights, which was fine, but pretty much everything that happened was incredibly melodramatic and about as subtle as a hammer. I liked seeing the glimpses of various presidents (Robin Williams plays Eisenhower, Alan Rickman plays Reagan) but overall, not recommended.

[Feb 23] “Almost Famous” (2000)

almost_famousA high school boy is hired by Rolling Stone magazine (they don’t know he’s in high school) to accompany a rock band on tour to write a story about them. I absolutely love coming of age movies, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. Patrick Fugit does a really great job as the precocious kid who’s way out of his depth but still manages to keep his head on his shoulders. Everyone in this movie seems completely real, and they make a lifestyle pretty much completely alien to me (drugs, groupies, etc.) seem very relatable. In particular, Kate Hudson as a groupie desperately seeking validation, Frances McDormand as the mom that’s really trying to be supportive but is worried sick, and Billy Crudup as the entitled but conflicted lead singer are great. And there’s a bunch of other actors I like too, like Anna Paquin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee, and Zooey Deschanel.

Apparently this is based on writer/director Cameron Crowe’s real life experiences touring with bands and writing for Rolling Stone when he was the same age, so it’s no wonder that it’s so good.

[Feb 24] “Resident Evil” (2002)

resident_evilAn elite unit is sent to deal with a research facility controlled by an insane AI where all the scientists have mutated into zombies. I’m not a big fan of horror (any sort of suspense drives me crazy) but I enjoyed this movie. It’s based on the popular Resident Evil video game series, and is apparently much less scary than the games (from what Joseph tells me).  The action was fun, the world was interesting, and I only had to hide under my blanket a couple of times.

[Feb 24] “Dil Dhadkane Do” (2015)

dil-dhadakne-doUnhappily married couple Kamal and Neelam Mehra go on a cruise with their family and friends for their 30th anniversary, and the careful lies that have been keeping their family intact fall apart. Joseph and I are both fans of writer and director Zoya Akhtar – her movies are usually a sharp look at society and expectations and the mess it leaves individuals in, without too much melodrama, and this movie did not disappoint. Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shetty do a great job as the disenchanted couple whose only focus is maintaining their image in society. I found a lot of the characters readily identifiable.The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the ending.

[Feb 25] “Million Dollar Arm” (2014)

million-dollar-arm-movie-posterJon Hamm plays a down on his luck sports agent who starts a reality show in India to find cricket players and train them to be baseball players in the US, but runs into much bigger challenges than he anticipates. This movie is based on a true story. I enjoyed the movie, it was a little predictable, but sports movies are reassuring in their own way. I wish the story had focused a little less on Jon Hamm’s personal story, though.

[Feb 26] “Valkyrie” (2008)

valkyrie-movie-posterAlso based on true story, Valkyrie tells the story of the 20 July assassination/political coup against Hitler and his government by dissenting German officers. Tom Cruise plays the protagonist Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the ringleaders and the one chosen to assassinate Hitler. I really enjoyed this movie – the cast was great (Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, among others) and it was well paced and tense despite knowing the ultimate outcome.

[Feb 26] “Do The Right Thing” (1989)

DO_THE_RIGHT_THINGIt’s a really hot Sunday in the primarily African-American neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and what starts out as life as usual slowly boils into violence as everyone’s frustration feeds off of each other. I’m not really sure how to describe this movie, but it’s really, really well done. I’ve never understood how mobs are formed, but this movie does a great job of showing how usually reasonable people can go insane under the right circumstances. It’s not dark and depressing though, for most of the movie, it’s just a slice of life movie that’s also really good. The actors are excellent too – writer and director Spike Lee plays one of the main characters. Just watch it!

[Feb 27] “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997)

Grosse-Pointe-Blank-movie-posterJohn Cusack plays a neurotic assassin-for-hire whose next target happens to coincide with his 10th high school reunion. He’s got several problems: the girl he’s never gotten over, two federal agents on his tail, an assassin that wants him to join a union, and a newly developed conscience. This is a rather odd movie – I was expecting more of a straight up action comedy, but this is a quirky movie that focuses a lot more on how John Cusack’s character feels than I thought it would. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I liked Dan Aykroyd especially.

[Feb 27] “The Fisher King” (1991)

The_Fisher_King_PosterA former radio “shock jock” (Jeff Bridges) who is extremely depressed because he accidentally goaded a listener into a shooting massacre befriends a homeless man (Robin Williams) whose wife was a victim of that massacre and has become mentally ill because of it. This is a Terry Gilliam movie, so it’s weird and uncomfortable in the way his movies usually are, but it was also very well done. Robin Williams is excellent as Parry, you can’t help but be charmed by him, and when he’s terrified, you’re terrified for him. Jeff Bridges does a great job as well.

[Feb 28] “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984)

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The WindWe’ve decided to go through all the Studio Ghibli movies in order. This one is technically not Studio Ghibli, it was made before it was formed, but we’re counting it as the first one.

Nausicaä is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom in a post-apocalyptic world where a deadly forest is slowly taking over the planet. Two of the bigger nations are engaged in a war, and the Valley of the Wind is caught in the middle. As with many Ghibli movies, there aren’t really “good” or “evil” characters and the worldbuilding is fantastic. Nausicaä is a great protagonist, she’s both strong and emotional, compassionate and determined.

[Feb 29] “Little Women” (1994)

Little_women_posterI really loved the book Little Women when growing up, so I was pretty excited about this movie. We follow the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as they grow up during and after the American Civil War in Concord, MA. They’re a pretty close family, and they stay close no matter what happens. I mostly liked the movie, my main complaints were that I didn’t buy Winona Ryder as Jo – she didn’t seem tomboyish enough, and that Laurie’s character arc seemed a bit rushed. Everything else was great, though, and I especially liked seeing Christian Bale in a somewhat goofy role as Laurie (he tends to play very serious types these days.)

Movies Watched: Feb 11 – Feb 20, 2016

[Feb 11] “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984)

MoscowOnTheHudsonThis was one of the most memorable movies I’ve watched over the last few months. It stars Robin Williams as a Soviet immigrant (or defector, since the USSR didn’t really encourage immigration) adjusting to his new life in the U.S. I thought this was going to be a comedy, but it was actually a really poignant story (and very relatable to me, I have my US citizenship interview next month!). It also features a bunch of other immigrants and their stories – from the Cuban lawyer to the other Soviet and European immigrants, and the ways they deal with this strange new country that’s so much better in many ways but really alienating in others. I highly recommend it.

[Feb 12] “No Strings Attached” (2011)

NoStringsAttachedSilly romantic comedy starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as two people that have a “no strings attached” sexual relationship but end up falling in love. Romantic comedies aren’t my favourite genre, especially the ones where the women are nuts, and Natalie Portman’s character is definitely a bit nuts in this one. We watched this one because Ivan Reitman made it though, and as far as the genre goes, though, it wasn’t too bad, it had a bit of heart.

[Feb 12] “Unbreakable” (2000)

unbreakableM. Night Shyamalan’s next movie after The Sixth Sense, also starring Bruce Willis. This is basically a superhero origin story, but more realistic than comics and kind of noir. Bruce Willis is really great at characters like this, and he even gets to have a bond with a kid again (his son). Samuel L. Jackson plays against type as a comics-obsessed man with medical issues who is convinced that superpowers exist and helps Willis’ character come to terms with his. I’ve seen Watchmen and Kick-Ass, which are also more “realistic” superhero stories, but I’d never heard of Unbreakable and I think it’s better than both of those.

[Feb 13] “The Bone Collector” (1999)

Bone_collector_posterA thriller/mystery starring Denzel Washington as a recently paralyzed forensic investigator and Angelina Jolie as the patrol cop that’s drafted into being his helper to solve the mystery of a serial killer that’s leaving clues to his next murder as he kills people. I found this movie really weird:

It wasn’t the worst movie ever, but I’m unlikely to want to watch it again.

[Feb 14] “Quiz Show” (1994)

quiz-show-movie-poster-1994-1020200997A Robert Redford directed movie about the scandal surrounding “Twenty One”, a quiz show in the late 1950s which was revealed to be rigged to keep the more “marketable” contestant on the show. This was a pretty good movie, the story was told in a very matter of fact way without too much melodrama, but all of the characters are very sympathetic. I don’t think it would’ve worked quite so well without Ralph Fiennes playing Charles Van Doren, the incredibly likeable contestant who keeps winning – it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, we like him a lot too and don’t want to see him hurt. Definitely recommended.

[Feb 14] “Never Let Me Go” (2010)

Never-Let-Me-Go-movie-posterI was pretty excited to see this because I really enjoyed the book but I was very disappointed. The book is just about three friends, the world is interesting and possibly a dystopia, but that’s really not the focus. The movie seems like it’s priorities are to be (1) a romance, (2) a sci-fi dystopia. Ruth’s character is pretty much non-existent…

I tried to look at this as just a movie instead of being related to the book, but I think that just makes it forgettable. It’s too bad too, because Carey Mulligan plays a really good Kathy, pretty much exactly as I’d imagined her (apparently she’s a fan of the book and really wanted to be in the movie).

[Feb 15] “The Upside of Anger” (2005)

TheUpsideofAngerAnother movie on our Kevin Costner binge. This stars Joan Allen as a suburban housewife whose husband unexpectedly disappears. She deals with it by a lot of self-loathing, sleeping with her loser ex-baseball player neighbour, and being utterly horrible to her four daughters. Despite her behaviour being really unpleasant to watch, I enjoyed the movie, she does grow somewhat, and her daughters and Kevin Costner make up for her horribleness. The ending…

[Feb 16] “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)

Much_ado_about_nothing_movie_posterThis was us continuing our Denzel Washington kick, he plays Don Pedro in this version of Much Ado About Nothing. I hadn’t ever read the play, so I didn’t know much about it. I really enjoyed the movie, though, who doesn’t love the bantering couple who can’t help but fall in love? I found Hero and Claudio’s story iffier (Claudio seems like a jerk, shaming Hero in public like that based on very circumstantial evidence), but I guess that’s just the times. I enjoyed the adaptation, too – the actors were great, and even Keanu (who I don’t think of as a great actor) is fine as the villainous prince. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh deliver their pithy lines very well.

[Feb 17] “Maid in Manhattan” (2002)

MaidInManhattanWe primarily watched this because of Ralph Fiennes (or I did anyway) – it’s a silly mistaken identity romantic comedy where Ralph Fiennes is a senatorial candidate who falls in love with a hotel maid at a fancy hotel that he believes to be a hotel guest. It was all right, I don’t think it was quite as bad as the reviews indicate, but it wasn’t great either.

[Feb 18] “Mr. Brooks” (2007)

MrBrooksKevin Costner plays very much against type in the movie – he’s Earl Brooks, a successful businessman hiding a secret – he’s the famous Thumbprint Killer, and his murderous alter ego / imaginary friend is pushing him to kill again after two years. He becomes careless and is seen by a wannabe serial killer who blackmails him into teaching him how to be a serial killer. In parallel, Demi Moore plays a police detective that is obsessed with catching the Thumbprint Killer but has several problems of her own – a messy divorce, another violent criminal determined to kill her, etc. The two threads come together pretty neatly towards the end.

I’m not sure what to think of this movie, it’s very morally ambiguous. Kevin Costner is the protagonist and we root for him because he seems smart and in-control, but he’s not a great person either. It’s definitely fun to watch him out-think everyone, though. So I guess I did enjoy it.

[Feb 18] “A Bug’s Life” (1998)

A_Bug's_LifeWe’ve decided to go through all the Pixar movies because I haven’t seen all of them, this is the first one we watched. It was fun but pretty formulaic, I don’t think it was as good as Pixar’s later movies though. Kevin Spacey does a great job as the antagonist Hopper.

[Feb 19] “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011)

The-Best-Exotic-Marigold-HotelSeveral British retirees move to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India, which promises a luxurious experience and a cheap cost of living. When they get there, the reality is actually that it’s a pretty rundown facility run by an idealistic young man with dreams (and not much else). However, they soon find that the place has other charms – they find friendship, occupation, and peace of mind (and in one case, conviction about the situation not being right). The cast is great – Maggie Smith plays a curmudgeon that you can’t help but like, Judi Dench plays a determined but scared woman who hasn’t ever been independent, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a constantly bickering couple with very different interests, Tom Wilkinson plays a man who once lived in India and has some unfinished business, plus a few more. Much more poignant than I thought it would be.

[Feb 19] “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009)

TheTakingofPelham123Another Denzel Washington/Tony Scott movie – I’ve liked pretty much all of their frequent collaborations. Terrorists hijack a subway train, and the lead terrorist (John Travolta) takes a particular fancy to the train dispatcher played by Denzel Washington and will deal only with him. It’s pretty typical of the genre, but Tony Scott’s direction and the actors make it better than average, I think.

[Feb 20] “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1997)

MidnightInTheGardenOfGoodAndEvilA big-city reporter (John Cusack) arrives in Savannah, GA to cover one of antique dealer Jim Williams’ famous Christmas parties. He’s already fascinated by Savannah’s culture and the town’s eccentric cast of characters, but things get even more interesting when there’s a murder in the middle of the party, so he stays on to cover the trial. This isn’t a murder mystery, though – it’s a drama based on a real life story, and the real focus is on the unique residents – the drag queen Lady Chablis, an old man who threatens to poison the town’s water supply every day and has flies attached to his clothes, a man who walks an imaginary dog every day, a famous bulldog, and a voodoo practitioner that’s seems to be as essential to winning the murder trial as a good lawyer. And there’s Kevin Spacey’s Jim Williams, who has to keep his sexuality under wraps because even in this town where being incredibly weird is accepted, being gay isn’t. I’m not sure how to describe this movie exactly, but it’s very good.

[Feb 20] “Air Force One” (1997)

Air_Force_One_(movie_poster)Harrison Ford plays the president whose plane is hijacked by terrorists (led by Gary Oldman) seeking a political prisoner’s freedom. This is a very formulaic action movie, but Harrison Ford is great to watch as the president and Gary Oldman is always deliciously evil, so I enjoyed it. I’ll just leave it at “Get off my plane!”

Movies Watched: Feb 2 – Feb 10, 2016

[Feb 2] “Blood Diamond” (2006)

blooddiamondThis is a story about the blood diamond trade in Africa – enslaved labor mining diamonds to be used for war. I hadn’t seen this movie since I saw it in theaters when it came out. At the time, I thought it was one of the best movies I’d ever seen (I didn’t watch a lot of movies, though). It’s still a very good movie, but not the masterpiece I remember it being. I do like Djimon Honsou and Leonardo DiCaprio a lot, though.

[Feb 3] “McFarland, USA” (2015)

McFarland,_USA_posterWe’ve been on a Kevin Costner kick lately, and I like sports movies (even though I don’t follow any sports), so I was pretty excited to see this movie featuring Costner as the coach of a primarily Latino cross country team in one of the poorest cities in America. I expected it to be pretty good, but it was even better than I thought it would be. It follows familiar beats, but the characterizations are well done, and Kevin Costner is as reassuring as ever.

[Feb 4] “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)

thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbuttonI’ve been wanting to watch this one for a long time – Brad Pitt playing someone that ages backwards. I was disappointed, though – it wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it was well-acted and well-made, but I found the things they chose to focus on very boring. It reminded me a lot of Forrest Gump, especially with the romantic elements, but I think Forrest’s life was more interesting. After this and The Age of Adaline, I think I’m going to be wary of romantic fantasy.

[Feb 5] “For Love of the Game” (1999)

ForLoveOfTheGame-posterAnother Kevin Costner movie, where he plays an aging pitcher reflecting on his tumultuous relationship during a baseball game. I didn’t like this movie so much, I found the baseball parts fun (the tension was well-done), but I didn’t care for the romantic drama aspects – for one, their relationship didn’t seem very healthy. I do like good romances, but this wasn’t one.


[Feb 6] “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004)

I’m reviewing these movies together since they tell a single story. I watched Kill Bill a long time ago, before I knew much about Quentin Tarantino, but I’m a big fan of him now, so I was excited to re-watch it. It’s a great stylized action movie, and it definitely holds up. I don’t like it as much as the other movies of his that I’ve watched – Pulp Fiction (genius!), Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds, just because Kill Bill is so pulpy that the characters aren’t as fleshed out.

[Feb 7] “12 Angry Men” (1957)

12angrymenThis is probably going to be one of my favourite movies of all-time, but I’m a sucker for justice and freedom and due process and those sorts of things. It’s probably famous enough that I don’t need to talk about what it’s about, but it’s about a jury deliberating, and the case turns out to be not quite as cut and dry as it first seems. The movie was excellently made, I was right up there with all the doubters in the beginning, and convinced that the evidence being debated couldn’t possibly be flawed, and as I began to be convinced, I never felt like it was beyond creduility at any point.

[Feb 8] “Truth” (2015)

truth-movie-posterA political drama based on the Killian documents controversy, where documents critical of George W. Bush’s conduct when he was in the National Guard were aired on CBS, and then turned out to be unauthenticated. Robert Redford plays Dan Rather, and Cate Blanchett plays his producer Mary Mapes. I wasn’t familiar with this scandal and the work of Rather and Mapes before this, but I always find political and media dramas interesting. It was a pretty good movie, I found it a little melodramatic at times, but I’d recommend it.

[Feb 9] “Rocket Science” (2007)

rocketscienceA smart but socially awkward kid with a stutter is coaxed into joining the school debate team by the star debater (who happens to be a pretty girl), but things don’t go well at all. This is one of those “protagonist doesn’t actually get anything that he wants” coming of age movies, and reminded me a lot of Rushmore, but less Wes Anderson-y. I enjoyed it.

[Feb 10] “Red Eye” (2005)

Red-Eye-movie-posterI remember seeing parts of this on TV when I was in India and for some reason, developing a little bit of a crush on Cillian Murphy (he plays the villain, but he manages to be charming even when he’s being utterly menacing.) Anyway, this is a thriller starring Rachel McAdams as a hotel manager whose seatmate threatens to kill her father unless she helps them with an assassination plot. It was a pretty standard thriller but I liked the actors and found it fun.

[Feb 10] “The Great Debaters” (2007)

thegreatdebatersBased on a true story about an all-black debate team from Texas who beat the reigning college national debate team in an era of segregation. Denzel Washington directed this movie, and he also stars as the professor that coaches the team. I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I’m so glad for how far we’ve come in less than a century – the juxtaposition of debate vs. things like lynch mobs was particularly horrifying. The only thing I didn’t like was that the content of the debates themselves seemed very much based in emotional arguments and oratory rather than facts.

Movies Watched: Jan 27 – Feb 1, 2016

My husband and I started watching a movie (sometimes more than one) every day in October. I’ve reviewed some of them briefly on my reading log at LibraryThing, but I figured I should post them here as well. I’m going to be making a few posts today since I’ve reviewed nearly a month’s worth of movies, but the posts after today should be better spaced out (although I still have a lot of catching up to do).

[Jan 27] “The Birdcage” (1996)

thebirdcageRobin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple that own a cabaret. Their son announces that he’s getting married to the daughter of a very conservative senator, and he wants his parents to pretend to be a normal family when his fiancee and her family come over for dinner. Of course, hijinks ensue.

I really enjoyed this movie, it had a lot of heart, and I liked the family dynamic. It’s pretty silly sometimes – it’s a comedy, but it’s fun. I’d definitely recommend it.

[Jan 27] “The Company Men” (2010)

thecompanymenThis movie was set during the recent economic downturn, and follows three long-time “company men” as they lose their jobs. It was a pretty standard drama, but I like all the actors in it, and I enjoyed it. It was a little bit flat, though – I can’t see it being memorable in a few months.

[Jan 28] “The Sixth Sense” (1999)

thesixthsenseNeither Joseph nor I had seen this movie, but both of us knew the twists because they’re so famous. I quickly gave up on trying to pretend that I didn’t know what they were, but it was a very good movie regardless. It’s amazing how anxious it made me without actually ever showing anything scary. And I liked Bruce Willis’s relationship with the kid – I think Bruce Willis is particularly good when he’s acting with kids, I liked him a lot in the movie “North” (which was critically panned but I enjoyed).

[Jan 28] “Career Opportunities” (1991)

careeropportunitiesA really silly movie starring Frank Whaley and Jennifer Connelly. It was written by John Hughes and has elements of The Breakfast Club (kids from very different social circles stuck together) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the ridiculous hijinks, a young person comes to terms with their independence from their father). It isn’t as good as either of those, but it was fun and short and kind of cute.

[Jan 29] “The Age of Adaline” (2015)

The_Age_of_AdalineBlake Lively stars as Adaline, a woman who does not age after a freak accident in the 1930’s. She lives a lonely and isolated life because she’s always on the run so that people don’t discover her secret, but then she meets a guy that she starts to fall for.

I had a bunch of problems with this movie. I didn’t think that the romance between Adaline and Ellis was plausible, there didn’t seem to be any chemistry, and I couldn’t figure out why she liked him in the first place. (I might be influenced by the fact that at one point Ellis threatens to have a book burning unless Adaline goes out with him – I really didn’t like or trust him, I found some of his other behavior a bit stalker-y too). Also, the movie does almost nothing with its really cool premise except have some overly melodramatic scenes where Adaline is reminiscing about the past, and show that she knows a few more things than other people. Also Harrison Ford is in this movie (yay!) but I found the whole story with him implausible and weird too. It’s hard to like a movie when you don’t buy the character arc.

[Jan 30]  “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2012)

thereluctantfundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story a Pakistani finance analyst turned professor who’s suspected to be involved with a terrorist group I’m a big fan of Mira Nair, so I was excited to watch this movie. It was well written, well made, and well acted, but it’s nowhere near my favourite of her movies. I found it a bit heavy handed with the whole “people aren’t what you expect them to be” thing, and I think she’s better when she’s telling the story of individual people rather than trying to make a point about society.

[Jan 30] “Salt” (2010)

Salt_film_theatrical_posterThis was “Liev Schreiber involved in foreign politics” night, apparently. This was a re-watch for me, but Joseph had never seen it. Angelina Jolie is a Bond/Jack Ryan-esque character that’s framed as being a Russian spy – or she might actually be one. The plot and writing aren’t that great, but I really like this movie because of Angelina Jolie’s character, who is matter-of-factly incredible without really ever being sexualized (unlike most female spies in movies). This is probably because the role was originally written for Tom Cruise.

[Jan 31] “Shallow Hal” (2001)

shallowhalA silly romantic comedy starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Hal is a very shallow person who only judges women by their appearance, but then he’s hypnotized by Tony Robbins into seeing people’s “inner beauty”. He falls in love with Rosemary, who’s 300 lb and not very conventionally attractive, but he actually sees her as Gwyneth Paltrow. It had a surprising amount of heart, and I enjoyed it.

[Feb 1] “Boyz n the Hood” (1991)

boynthehoodThis movie follows the coming of age of three young black men from a L.A. “hood”. It was very good, although somewhat depressing at the end. I especially liked the wide range of three-dimensional characters, and the look at a culture which I’m not that familiar with.

A few mini-reviews, January 2016 edition

I’ve read more than 30 books since the last book I reviewed, so I’m just going to do a few 1-paragraph reviews in an attempt to catch up.

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

thephilosopherkingsSequel to The Just City, which I loved. This was one of my most anticipated reads this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty different book from The Just City, and starts off with the very unpromising note of the death of one of my favorite characters from the last book. But it goes on to explore the nature of grief, and what it means to be your best self regardless of circumstances in an incredibly thoughtful way. The new characters are compelling, and it’s fun to see more of the world. And the ending is a doozy, I really cannot wait for the next book, which is going to be entirely different from the last book again.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

themechanicalThis book had been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I was introduced to the world by Tregillis’ short story in the anthology Human for a Day about a clockwork android seeking his freedom from the compulsion that drives him to be a slave. Tregillis later developed the short story into The Mechanical (I’m only linking to that Reddit AMA because I asked the question.) The series is set in an alternate history where the Dutch empire has conquered the world through its invention of mechanical servitors called Clakkers, and New France is the primary opposition, although it is on the brink of defeat. We follow, among others, Jax, a Clakker that longs for his freedom, and Berenice, the spymaster of New France as they fight against the empire. The world and politics are fascinating, I found the characters a little flat at times. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is out next month.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

theendofallthingsI really enjoy the Old Man’s War universe, so this was a no-brainer pre-order for me. Just like The Human Division, this is a series of loosely connected stories that tells a larger tale. Scalzi’s trademark wit is in full evidence, and the political shenanigans his characters get up to are always fun to read about. I was surprised that the ongoing CDF/Earth/Conclave story arc was actually wrapped up pretty neatly, since there are more books scheduled to be written in the universe. I’m looking forward to see where Scalzi takes the story next.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadowsofselfThis is the sequel to The Alloy of Law, set 300 years after the original Mistborn trilogy. Pretty much everything you expect from Brandon Sanderson and Mistborn – fun characters, amazing magic-system innovations and worldbuilding, a very, very effective plot twist and terrible puns. I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of banter/action, and not enough character moments, but I’m excited that the next book comes out in January – only three months after this book.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Adventures, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Old Man's War, #6)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Thessaly, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Luna: New Moon” by Ian McDonald

lunanewmoonAs always, I’m behind on my reviews, so I’m keeping this one short.

Luna: New Moon was marketed as “Game of Thrones set on the moon”, and that seemed pretty accurate to me. The Moon has finally been colonized, primarily by the Five Dragons, five powerful industrial families that are constantly battling for supremacy. We’re following the upstart Cortas, led by matriarch Adriana Corta, who’ve made a fortune mining Helium-3, but are finding that their ascension to Dragon stature comes with a whole bunch of complications.

There’s no one protagonist, as is the case with many of McDonald’s novels. We follow pretty much all of the Cortas, and some others, like Marina Calzaghe, a “Jo Moonbeam” (a recent arrival from Earth) who gets thoroughly tangled in the Cortas’ affairs. There doesn’t seem to be plot at first, we dive head first into the Cortas’ lives, what they do, who they love, their struggles with each other, but it’s all extremely compelling. We also learn more about the early days of the moon and its colonization through Adriana’s memoirs, which adds a lot of context to the story and is a lot of fun. There is plot though, and it all makes sense when it comes to fruition.

Some of the other highlights were the evolution of world/national culture (something McDonald specializes in), the development of  interesting AI, and the brutal economics of living on the moon. My only complaint was that I didn’t realize that this was a duology until I reached the end and realized there was no way this story had ended. I’m looking forward to the sequel, though. CBS is also developing a TV show based on the books, which I really hope goes to series.

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna: New Moon, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant coverI was intrigued by the evocative title of The Traitor Baru Cormorant ever since I first heard of it. Then I found out that it was about a woman who wants to take down a ruthless empire by rising within its civil service – as an accountant! Political intrigue and worldbuilding are two of my very favourite things in fantasy, and you can’t really have a story about manipulating the economy to bring down a country without either of those things. And I figured that someone with the audacity to base their debut novel’s premise on fantasy economics has to be good enough to do it well. So yes, I had really high expectations for this book, and I was still blown away.

Baru Cormorant is from the island of Taranoke, which has caught the eye of the Empire of Masks (or the Masquerade as it is called derogatorily). The Masquerade doesn’t do anything as overt as actually invading, though – their strategy is much more subtle, starting with getting the Taranoki dependent on their trade, “helping” with Taranoki defense, and opening schools, and before you know it, half of Taranoke is dead from a plague and most of the customs Baru grew up with are declared anathema. Baru recognizes how helpless she and her people are, and resolves to help her people the only way she can think of – by destroying the Masquerade from the inside. She knows her first assignment is a test, though – to subdue the harsh and rebellious country of Aurdwynn, which has always destroyed those who have tried to rule it.

There are so many ways this book could have been done wrong – the trope of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been done a lot, and it is hard to sympathize with anything that helps an Evil Empire (and the Empire is definitely Evil – eugenics, cultural superiority, no regard for human life, strict laws on sexual preferences). But Baru is a tremendously compelling character,; she haunted me for weeks after I finished this book. She really wants to be ruthless in her quest for vengeance, and she usually succeeds, but no matter how many atrocities she causes, you can’t help but rejoice at her successes. You see how much she suffers with every betrayal and watch her pull herself back together through sheer force of will, and it’s as beautiful as it is terrible. The Masquerade has shaped Baru for longer than her family of “a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer” has, and even if it kills her, she must work for it to eventually be able to work against it.

Everything else about the book is extraordinary too – the supporting characters (especially the enigmatic Duchess Tain Hu), the settings (complex and organic cultures, but no stereotypes), the plot (the loans and futures trading are fascinating, but there’s a lot more to it too) – but Baru steals the show, as is apropos of book’s title. I absolutely cannot wait for the next book.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.