“The Core” by Peter V. Brett

Spoiler warning: This post may contain spoilers for the first four books of the series.

I’ve been following the Demon Cycle series for a few years now ever since my husband surprised me with the first book when I was going through a reading slump. The Core is the fifth and final book of the series and I was eager to find out how it all wrapped up.

Ahmann Jardir and Arlen Bales are preparing to do the unthinkable: lead an assault on the demons’ home deep underground in an effort to put an end to constant war. They must do it quickly since the demon queen is about to hatch and turn a single hive into many more, but they also need to make sure that their own people don’t tear each other apart in their absence. Meanwhile, the people of Thesa, including Hollow County’s new countess Leesha Paper and Jardir’s wife Inevara are preparing for an all-out attack by the demons.

I thought The Core did a good job of wrapping up the story and providing resolutions to most arcs. It almost felt a little too neat but it was fulfilling so I don’t mind. Unlike the earlier books, there are no flashback sequences so the book is fully devoted to resolving the current conflict. Significant portions of the narrative were told through the viewpoint of some of the newer characters which I thought was refreshing because the main characters are significantly overpowered and don’t have much conflict or growth left. We get to see the war from the points of view of various parts of Thesa through these characters. We even get some perspectives from the demons.

This book isn’t perfect, the pacing seemed a little off. We don’t get to the journey to the Core until hundreds of pages have passed, and what we do get instead with Ahmann and Arlen seems a little too much like fanservice. Abban’s viewpoint is extremely uncomfortable to read and I’ not sure why he was such a big part of this book given his role (or lack thereof) in the book’s events. And there are things about this series that annoyed me from the very beginning and they continued to annoy me – the way that Arlen, Renna, and other Hollow County people’s accent is translated, the Krasian language with its extremely similar sounding words, the occasional crassness, but I knew all that going in so I don’t think it’s fair to complain too much about it.

Even though this book concludes the story satisfactorily, it’s blatantly obvious that there will be a new series (I’m calling it Demon Cycle: The Next Generation in my head) since pretty much every woman is pregnant and we’re introduced to about eight babies towards the end. We’re also reminded that this is only one hive of demons and there are probably more out there. I am looking forward to seeing the world of the books expanded and meeting the new characters.

The Core by Peter V. Brett (Demon Cycle, #5)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book

“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasalisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the young daughter of a country noble. Vasya was born with a destiny; her mother sacrificed her own life so that she could inherit her family’s magical heritage. She can see and communicate with the household and woodland spirits around her. However, when her father marries a new devoutly Christian woman, her arrival puts an end to the traditional offerings to the spirits and their protection weakens just as an ancient evil is breaking free of his bonds.

The Bear and the Nightingale is quiet and slow, focusing on Vasya’s domestic life for the first two-thirds, but it’s never boring. It completely immerses you the atmosphere of the place and time that it’s set in in a way that few other books do. There’s the obvious comparison to Hild by Nicola Griffth, another story that takes real-life historical figures who are dealing with the advent of Christianity pushing out indigenous religious beliefs and tells their story with an incredible amount of detail about their day-to-day life. But the book reminded me most of the movie Whale Rider in tone, the protagonists of both are young women who know who they are and the world around them must eventually give up trying to contain them and instead bow to their convictions. Vasya is a remarkable protagonist, she acts and thinks like a woman of her time but she’s still almost a force of nature.

The other characters in the book are just as rich as Vasya, even the antagonists. You can’t bring yourself to despise Vasya’s hysterical stepmother Anna or the overzealous village priest Father Konstantin despite the awful things they do because their actions are so obviously motivated by their fear and unhappiness with parts of their life that they could not control. Vasya’s family loves her, but they are people of their time and their adherence to tradition stifles Vasya just as effectively as the more antagonistic characters. But they are still characters you grow to love.

I’ve always been captivated by Russian folklore with its guardian spirits that are an inseparable part of daily life. This book perfectly captures the feeling of living in a such a world and it’s hard to tell where the real world begins and what’s magical because it’s all reality to Vasya. It mixes medieval slice-of-life with fairy tale conventions effortlessly. Morozko the winter-king says to Vasya at some point that magic is just choosing to believe that the world is the way you want it to be and I think that conveys the tone of this book rather well. The worldbuilding is only enhanced by the author’s beautiful prose that conjures up vivid imagery from very few words.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of the year. I particularly appreciated that this book tells a satisfying story by itself. If I didn’t already know there was a sequel, I would have assumed it was a standalone. But I’m so glad that there is a sequel and I have an early copy of it because I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Winternight, #1)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“An Echo of Things to Come” by James Islington

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for the first book in this series, The Shadow of What Was Lost.

An Echo of Things to Come is the second book in James Islington’s Licanius trilogy. I loved the first book of this series when I read it last year so I was impatiently looking forward to this one.

We pick up fairly soon after the events of the previous book; our heroes are settling into their new roles working against the impending invasion. Davian is at Tol Shen where he hopes to gather Augurs to help repair the spells protecting the Boundary, Wirr, the new Northwarden, is fighting an uphill battle to convince a resentful Administration that he can be trusted as their leader. Asha advocates for the failing Boundary to be taken seriously at court, and Caeden uses his portal box to finally get some answers about who he is and what his plan was before wiping his own memory.

All the characters have good arcs in this book, although Caeden’s is the most interesting for the same reason that Memento is such a compelling movie (and an arc in a certain anime that I don’t want to name since it would be a spoiler). The trope of a character making plans that involve them losing all knowledge of the plan but still succeeding has been done before but it’s executed skillfully here. It goes well enough that we appreciate Caeden’s foresight but there are a lot of variables involved and it would have been hard to suspend disbelief if it had been realized perfectly. The slow reveal of his flashbacks gives you just enough to be satisfied to wait until the next one happens but still eagerly anticipating the continuation.

The previous book had many scenes that were reminiscent of the Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan books it’s so clearly inspired by, (much like how The Eye of the World borrowed heavily from Tolkien). This book steps out of their shadow and feels considerably more original while still maintaining the comforting classic fantasy tone that made the last one so good. It’s a slower book than the first, though; it’s clearly setting up plots and characters for the third book. Some subplots dragged on for a little too long, especially Davian’s difficulties with a new Augur at Tol Shen, but it was a well structured book otherwise. And it answered a bunch of open questions about the world and its history which I wasn’t expecting until the last book, so that was great.

Now I get to wait impatiently all over again for the third book, The Light of All That Falls.

An Echo of Things to Come by James Islington (The Licanius Trilogy, #3)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“Provenance” by Ann Leckie

I’m a big fan of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series (see my reviews of Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Mercy) and I was ridiculously excited about Provenance, which is a standalone story set in the same universe but focusing on entirely different characters.

Ingray, the daughter of an influential politician on the planet Hwae, has spent her whole life trying to prove to her mother than she is worthy of being named her heir. She comes up with a brilliant but risky plan – breaking notorious thief Pahlad Budrakim out of prison and convincing them to reveal the location of the historically significant items (“vestiges”) they stole, which would make her a hero on Hwae. However, her plans are derailed when an important dignitary from another planet (and her mother’s house-guest) gets murdered and the newly recovered Pahlad is the prime suspect.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ingray; she is one of the least power-hungry characters I’ve encountered but her initial motivation is to be named her mother’s heir. Plus she constantly doubts herself and her emotions overwhelm her at several points (it makes sense because she keeps going from situation to situation where she is out of her element, but most science-fiction books don’t focus on the emotional ramifications of a character being under continuous stress). She does change over the book in a realistic way and comes to terms with who she is so I found her arc ultimately satisfying.

As with Ancillary Justice, you can’t rely on your assumptions about gender conventions; humans on Hwae have a third gender and that’s just part of Ingray’s world. The book throws you straight into Ingray’s life and leaves it up to you to figure out her world and culture from context clues. There isn’t much exposition in the rest of the book either, which took a little bit of getting used to but I appreciated it in the end.

Provenance reminded me more of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit) than Leckie’s previous trilogy. Despite its setting, It’s more of a coming-of-age story and a cozy mystery than a space opera. The characters are mostly all nice people that care about doing their job well, which is refreshing to read about but also lowers stakes and sucks much of the tension out of the story. But Leckie’s core strengths of creating an immersive world and setting up political intrigue with characters you care about make this a great read anyway.

Provenance by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 22-28, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Australia (2008)

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, arrives in Australia to encourage her husband to sell Faraway Downs, their cattle ranch, and return to the U.K. with her. She is escorted to the ranch by boorish stockman Drover (Hugh Jackman) only to find that her husband is murdered in takeover attempt by King Carney, who would enjoy a monopoly on beef if not for Faraway Downs. She becomes determined to finish her husband’s work but she will need the help of Drover as well as the Aboriginal people that work on the ranch to do so.

I absolutely loved Australia. It feels like a sweeping epic, even though it only focuses on a few events; it’s got adventure, war, drama, romance, tragedy, a good sense of humour, heartwarming relationships, reprehensible villains, and tells an enormously satisfying story with it all. I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture and having Aboriginal characters be such a critical part of the movie was both educational and contributed to the epic tone of the movie. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman’s chemistry is undeniable and they’re both very good actors on their own, too. I’m not sure how they found the kid who plays Nullah but he’s the perfect mix of precocious and childlike and you both trust him with adult responsibilities and want to protect him at the same time.

I think the title of this movie is fantastic and conveys a good idea of what the movie aims to do – it’s a paean to Australia – its people, its history, the beautiful landscapes, and a whole lot more. It makes you fall in love with it just as Lady Ashley does. I can see myself wanting to re-watch this movie fairly often and I’m already looking forward to it!

Other Movies Watched

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy is set in a steampunk versions of the 1860s and follows a young British inventor, James Ray Steam, who comes from a family of inventors working mainly on steam-powered technology. His father and grandfather are off in Alaska working on a new prototype of the “steam ball”, which can pressurize steam and store energy more efficiently than any other technology of the era. One day Ray receives a package containing the steam ball from his grandfather with strict instructions to keep it safe and is thrust into adventure trying to do so.

This is director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s next movie after the critically acclaimed Akira and is just as spectacular although the tone and style are quite different. It’s a classic adventure story with one of the best depictions of a steampunk world I’ve seen on film. It does a splendid job of showing the wonder and passion experienced by the main characters and inspiring the audience to feel it too. The story has a lot of action and the characters are mostly predictable but that’s okay because you’re so mesmerized by the other elements on the movie. The animation is beautiful too.

The French steampunk animated film April and the Extraordinary World (which I saw and loved in the beginning of this year) is clearly inspired heavily by Steamboy and you should watch that one too.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Sal Naturale (John Cazale) decide to rob a bank but their plan goes awry and the situation turns into a media circus. The police’s attempts to resolve the situation are complicated by a crowd of onlookers expressing support for the robbers and the hostages’ growing rapport with Sonny.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, including some of the more seemingly outlandish details like Sonny’s motivation for the robbery. It juggles tones admirably; sometimes it seems like a comedy, especially when we (and the characters themselves) realize that Sonny and Sal are in way over their head, other times it’s a subtle farce of how the media covers stories, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness all the way through. Al Pacino practically oozes charisma and wins over the onlookers, the hostages, and the audience alike and that’s a big part of the charm of this movie. Actually, all the actors speak volumes even when they aren’t saying anything.The storytelling is taut, keeping up the tension without heading into thriller territory. It feels surprisingly modern, especially the treatment of Sonny’s sexuality and personal life.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

A couple of days after the events of John Wick, John heads back home to bury his guns and try and figure out what he’s going to do with his life. But his brief return to the criminal world has not passed unnoticed, and an old acquaintance comes knocking on the door to call in a marker. John is forced to take the job but that sucks him in further and he soon finds himself on the run and surrounded by enemies at every turn.

This is one of those rare sequels that is as good as if not better than the original movie. It takes everything interesting about John Wick and expands on it. The worldbuilding continues to be compelling, we see a lot more of the world as John travels to Italy and has to replenish his stocks heavily. I love the characters too – John’s taciturn professionalism is delightful and Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Laurence Fishburne (among others) steal every scene they are in. The action is stylish and fun, which makes sense since these movies are directed by Chad Stahelski, who has had a long career working on stunts (fun fact: he was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix series). The ending is fantastic and establishes a cohensive universe with characters that actually change in response to the events around them, which is something action franchises don’t traditionally do; usually it’s just a repetition of the same formula in each sequel. After watching that ending, I can’t wait for John Wick: Chapter 3 in 2019, especially since the same writer and director as the first two movies are working on them.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Young couple Adam and Barbara Maitland die suddenly in a car crash but continue living in their house as ghosts as they adjust to being dead and all the rules that come with it. They are quite happy until their home is sold and the (living) Deetz family moves in and start to redecorate the house. The Maitlands attempt to scare them away but all the things they do just intrigue the Deetzes more, especially their teenage daughter Lydia. In desperation they turn to Betelgeuse, a “bio-exorcist”, but he’s got his own sinister agenda.

This movie is bananas and I mean that as a compliment. It’s got director Tim Burton’s signature bizarre/creepy aesthetic and surreal atmosphere, but from before it started to feel stale. Michael Keaton chews scenery like a pro as Betelgeuse and makes ample use of his terrific comic timing. The other actors seem like they’re having a blast too, especially (a young and handsome) Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis at the Maitlands and Winona Ryder as the goth-ish Lydia Deetz. There a bunch of memorable scenes that are great even without any context, see this scene at a dinner party given by the Deetzes for instance.

Hollywood just doesn’t make movies that are proudly wacky like this anymore; I wish they did!

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Masseuse Beatriz (Salma Hayek) has just finished a session with Kathy, one of her wealthy clients, but her car won’t start as she’s leaving to go home. Kathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s clients and invites Beatriz to stay for it. Beatriz considers herself a holistic healer living in harmony with the world around her, but her worldview clashes violently with that of the other dinner guests, especially real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Both Beatriz and Doug are not shy about volunteering their opinions, leaving the other guests caught in the crossfire.

Beatriz at Dinner does an excellent job of showing us the world as Beatriz sees it – uncomfortable, missing obvious truths, and somehow filled with pain – without much judgement or agenda. Whether you find Beatriz sympathetic and the guests around her morally reprehensible, or you think she is going off the deep end and taking things too seriously, the film still works for you. There are a thousand different things under the surface of the characters’ conversations and it all feels almost viscerally awkward to watch because it’s so realistic. The ending was not what I expected of this movie at all but I thought it worked perfectly.

Taken (2008)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA and moved to California in order to spend more time with his estranged daughter, Kim. When she leaves for a trip around Europe, he finds it hard to let her go and not be over-protective of her. When she reaches Paris, his worst nightmares come true when she is kidnapped by a gang of human traffickers. He must use his “particular set of skills” acquired during his time in the CIA to get her back.

I was skeptical of Liam Neeson as an action star but finding out that this movie was written by Luc Besson made me a little more interested in watching it (especially since I loved 3 Days to Kill, another movie written by Besson about an older CIA agent reuniting with his daughter in Paris, and I just love Besson in general). I’m not sure why this movie got all the hype it did (and two sequels and a TV show). Maybe because Neeson’s character is a soft-spoken and innocuous seeming guy that can quickly switch to being deadly (this was also when Breaking Bad started airing and Walter White was popular for similar reasons)? In my opinion, Taken is a run-of-the-mill action thriller with no real attention to detail and nothing that stood out as particularly special.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 15-21, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Fall (2006)

In a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, injured stuntman Roy Walker and Alexandria, a five year old girl with a broken arm, strike up a friendship. Roy begins to tell her the story of a band of legendary heroes battling an evil general and her vibrant imagination brings it to life. Although his initial motivation is to entertain Alexandria, he soon realizes that she could steal him the morphine he craves and starts trading pieces of the story for favors.

The Fall is almost impossible to describe, it’s a unique movie and I doubt there will ever be anything else like it. The cinematography is beyond spectacular, the heroes travel from one breathtaking location to another and the movie does not seem to be bound by any real-world rules other than the strength of Alexandria’s imagination. It’s not just the backgrounds either, the character design and the framing are also striking and evocative. The music is arresting, especially the use of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. There is also some good examination on the nature of storytelling, especially with the seamless transition between reality and fantasy, the way Roy’s story evolves in response to real-world events, and the obvious differences between the words that Roy speaks and the images that Alexandria associates them with (such as Roy describing a Native American when he says “Indian” but Alexandria picturing the character as someone from India since she is more familiar with them).

The acting by the two protagonists (Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru) is extraordinary. I’ve never seen a young actor that acted so realistically (she was six!) and I believe large parts of the movie were improvised so that they could allow her to be herself. I read that they even allowed her to believe that Lee Pace was a real quadriplegic so that she would respond naturally to him. Roy’s story is subtly told and all the more poignant for it; his anguish is both easy to sympathize with and unsettling to watch in the context of his relationship with Alexandria.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen The Fall and I have this reaction to it every time. I could keep gushing about it forever. I think it is one of the most visionary and memorable movies I’ve ever seen and am likely to see. If I was asked about the best movie I’d ever seen, this would probably be it because it takes advantage of its format to tell a story that no other medium could tell anywhere near as effectively.

Other Movies Watched

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A young homeless boy living on the streets of Tokyo finds a portal to a magical world of beasts. He is taken in as an apprentice by the coarse and surly warrior Kumatetsu and christened Kyuta by his new master. Kyuta and Kumetetsu squabble constantly but learn from each other and eventually develop a deep bond. But Kyuta never forgets the human world either and his ties to both worlds are tested by various events.

This is the fourth and latest movie (as of now) by award-winning Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda. I’ve loved all his previous work (see reviews of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children) and he’s only getting better with every movie he makes. The Boy and the Beast has drama, comedy, and adventure in just the right proportions, and every bit of it is heartwarming. It doesn’t shy away from putting its characters through real difficulty, though. Like Wolf Children, it’s about being torn between two worlds and giving up something important no matter what choice is made. It is fundamentally a coming of age story for both for Kyuta and Kumetetsu though, and so it’s also about finding your place and being content with it.

Having watched this movie means that I have no more new Hosoda to watch, but he’s making a new movie, Mirai, that’s hopefully coming out in 2018!

Somewhere (2010)

Johnny Marco is an actor that seems to have everything figured out on the surface – he’s getting more famous, he’s winning awards, and he’s rich. He’s overcome by ennui though and can’t bring himself to care about or enjoy anything. When his ex-wife needs to get away for a while, his eleven-year-old daughter comes to stay with him and that experience slowly chips away at his apathy.

If you’ve read my previous movie reviews, you may have noticed that Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and Somewhere only heightens that. It has a distinctive style, lingering for what feels like too long on every shot but perfectly capturing the weight of the character’s boredom and lethargy. Just like Lost in Translation there is some subtle satire of how show business works, especially publicity. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning do an excellent job as the main characters and sell the father-daughter rapport admirably.

It’s hard to describe this movie because not a lot of stuff happens but everything that does seems much more intimate than you’re used to from other movies. I read that it was criticized because it focused on the problems of a successful actor but I actually liked that part; it’s a good reminder that no matter what things look like on the outside, everybody needs to figure out their own meaning and purpose for their life.

John Wick (2014)

John Wick used to be a hitman before he left the criminal world behind to make a fresh start with his wife. She has just died of an illness and he finds himself adrift. When he incidentally crosses paths with some gangsters, they take away what little he has left and he finds purpose again – hunting down and killing them all.

I’d heard a lot of good things about John Wick but I’m always slightly skeptical about Keanu Reeves (I’m not sure why, he’s been in a couple of clunkers but he’s a fine actor). It turned out to live up to the hype, though. If we hadn’t watched so many other good movies this week, it probably would have ended up being my favorite.

John Wick is one of those movies that is pure fun to watch. The character is already legendary by the time we meet him and he doesn’t need an emotional growth arc to make his story engrossing. Just seeing him kicking ass and taking names is mesmerizing. There is none of the cloying sentimentality that other “my wife just got killed” characters often have. And he doesn’t talk unless he’s got something to say and that makes him far less annoying than most characters. The movie reminded me stylistically a little of The Boondock Saints but it’s not as outrageous and much better. One of the other things I really enjoyed was how the infrastructure of the criminal underworld was set up; it made for a compelling world that I wanted to see more of. Luckily, John Wick: Chapter 2 exists and there is a third movie in production.

The Dark Tower (2017)

Eleven-year-old Jake Chambers has been plagued by apocalyptic visions that show him the Dark Tower that keeps the universe safe, the Man in Black that wants to destroy it, and the lone Gunslinger that opposes him, Roland Deschain. Roland is the last of the Gunslingers and he was abandoned his duty in order to seek vengeance upon the Man in Black who has murdered the rest of his compatriots. Walter, the Man in Black, has his own plans – has been hunting children with psychic powers since they are the only ones capable of bringing down the tower. Eventually his attention turns to Jake, who manages to run away into another world where he meets Roland. Together they must figure out how to stop Walter’s plans for good.

This movie tells a simple and familiar story – a young misfit meets a world-weary adult, makes him care about the world again, and together they fight against an undeniably evil villain. I haven’t read the Dark Tower books (yet) but I’m sure that it’s far more complex and the movie is probably not a great adaptation and/or sequel. I thought it was a pretty good, though. It establishes an interesting world without too much exposition, it’s got likeable characters and talented actors (Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, among others), it’s got good pacing, and it tells a cohesive story. It’s not an outstanding movie but it’s not bad, either. And it definitely made me interested in reading the books.

Patriot Games (1992)

This is the second movie based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books. I think it is supposed to be a sequel to The Hunt for Red October but most of the characters are played by different actors, including Harrison Ford taking over the title role. When Jack and his family are visiting London for a conference, he happens to be in the right place at the right time to save a member of the royal family from IRA assassins. One of the terrorists is killed and his brother (Sean Bean) becomes fixated on getting back at Jack no matter what the consequences will be.

I didn’t expect this movie to be as good as The Hunt for Red October but I was still disappointed by it. It’s actually a decent action movie but it was too generic. The appeal of Jack Ryan as a character is that he’s an analyst, not a field agent and he solves problems using his mind. This movie has no room for a character like that because the bad guys keep showing up wherever he is, there isn’t anything he needs to figure out. Plus Alec Baldwin played the character with a sense of thoughtfulness and deep resolve and I can’t think of many other similar movie characters. On the other hand, Harrison Ford’s Jack is indistinguishable from his other action roles. I could see his character becoming president a few years later and kicking Gary Oldman off his plane.

What Happened To Monday (2017)

In the future, fertility rates have rocketed and overpopulation has caused a global crisis. The Child Allocation Bureau strictly enforces a “one child per family” law, taking away any siblings to put into cryosleep. When Karen Settman dies after giving birth to septuplets, her father cannot bring himself to abandon any of his grandchildren and brings them up to make sure only one of them is ever outside the house at any given time so that they can all pose as a single person. This system works well until one of the sisters, Monday, doesn’t come back home as usual and the rest of the sisters have to figure out what happened.

I thought this movie had an intriguing premise but unfortunately it didn’t live up to its potential. Noomi Rapace does a passable job playing all seven sisters but she didn’t make them distinctive enough and I couldn’t tell a lot of the sisters apart (she’s no Tatiana Maslany). The plot has a couple of surprises but many of the twists felt predictable and stale. I wasn’t expecting the movie to be as violent as it was. Some movies can pull that off but it felt gratuitous in this one.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 8-14, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Sound of Music (1965)

I’m not sure how I’d never seen The Sound of Music, I’ve known songs from it ever since I can remember and I know it’s one of best-known classic movies all around the world.

Maria, a young Austrian woman, is a nun in training in a convent in Salzburg. She is excitable and easily distracted though, which are not qualities that nuns usually possess. So the abbess of her convent decides to send her to the Von Trapp family as a governess for a few months to help her decide if she really wants to be a nun. Maria finds seven lovely children who are desperate to get their father’s attention since he has been extremely strict and aloof since their mother died. She brings joy back to the family’s life but fresh difficulties for them arise as Austria is annexed to Nazi Germany.

I find that older movies don’t hold my attention quite as easily as newer ones do, but I didn’t have that problem at all with The Sound of Music, despite it being over fifty years old and about three hours long. The songs are fabulous and I still have a couple stuck in my head. The pacing is perfect, just as you’re starting to wish a conflict in the movie was solved, it does and the movie throws something else at you. The actors are wonderful, adding both humor and drama without either feeling disingenuous. The whole movie has a cozy warmth to it that I can’t quite describe. I know why everyone loves it so much now!

Other Movies Watched

Sin Nombre (2009)

Sin Nombre follows Sayra, a Honduran teenager, and Willy, a young Mexican gangster. Sayra and her family (including her father that she hasn’t seen since she was very young) are on a perilous journey through Mexico to attempt crossing the border into the United States. Casper is growing disillusioned with gang life and is looking for a way out so that he can keep his girlfriend safe. Both their stories eventually intersect on the train that Sayra is traveling on.

This is a exceptional movie. It is not always easy to watch; it is brutally violent (but in realistic ways) and some bad things happen to people, including children. But it also has moments of beauty and hope. First-time writer/director Cary Fukunaga (later famous for True Detective and Beasts of No Nation) is phenomenal, the writing, the pacing, the atmosphere, the acting, and everything else was outstanding. Everything about the movie seems authentic (I read that Fukunaga spent two years researching the movie by spending time with real gangsters and with people looking to move to the United States), especially the people in it. The cast features several non-professional actors so that helps. The story that the movie tells is a huge part of its success, it offers an unrelentingly realistic view of people whose situations are so hopeless that illegal immigration seems like a good option.

Jumanji (1995)

Alan Parrish finds a mysterious board game named Jumanji on a construction site and starts playing a game with his friend Sarah. Jumanji isn’t just a game, though. It can actually affect the real world and they find this out the hard way when Alan vanishes while Sarah flees from a horde of bats. Decades later, siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old house and inadvertently resume Alan and Sarah’s old game and release a grown-up Alan from 26 years of being alone in the jungle. Now the four of them must finish the game and brave all the dangers that entails so that things can return to normal.

Jumanji is a classic for a good reason. It’s often chaotic and cacophonous and sometimes a little scary but it’s got all the ingredients that make a good story – humor, heart, romance, adventure, and a little bit of the unexpected. Also Robin Williams is a genius and movies like this one where he works with kids are perfect for him to show off his unique skills (see also: Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire). Kirsten Dunst has been a great actor since she was a child (she’s even better in 1994’s Interview with a Vampire) and she’s a hoot in pretty much every scene she’s in. I wish they still made wacky movies like this!

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Narcissistic actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) has always outdone her rival, aspiring writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). She’s prettier, more successful at her chosen profession, and she’s even managed to steal Helen’s fiancé, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). That was all in the past, though, and Madeline is aging and being quickly forgotten. When Helen reappears in her life with all the success that Madeline has lost, she decides to one-up her by taking an immortality treatment from the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini). Things don’t quite go quite as well as she planned, though.

This is one of those horror-comedy campy movies that seemed to exist mostly around the late ’80s and early ’90s (like Beetlejuice and The Frighteners) and it is a lot of fun. Meryl Streep steals pretty much every scene she’s in (the very first scene in the movie is a ridiculous musical number). and I never knew that Bruce Willis could play a mousy and unassertive guy as well as he does here. Isabella Rossellini and Goldie Hawn are no slouches either, they were just as good but I haven’t seen as many movies with them so I wasn’t as amused by them. This movie is right in director Robert Zemeckis’s wheelhouse – he thrives with plenty of humor and special effects, and this is no exception. The ending of the movie was just perfect, too.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia! is a musical based entirely on ABBA songs. Sophie has grown up on a colorful Greek island helping her mother Donna run a quaint hotel. She’s never known who her father is, but as she’s planning her wedding, she finds her mother’s old journal in which she writes about her romances with three different men at around the same time. Sophie knows that one of them must be her father so she decides to invite them all to the wedding and figure out which one it is so that he can walk her down the aisle. Hilarity and singing ensues.

My husband and I both grew up listening to the same ABBA CD (Gold: Greatest Hits) and after watching Muriel’s Wedding (which features ABBA heavily) and Rock of Ages, an ABBA musical sounded fantastic to us. The cast is terrific, Meryl Streep plays Donna, Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, the three potential fathers are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, and Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, are all in it too. They all seem like they’re having so much fun hamming it up (especially Christine Baranski) and it’s infectious – I’m pretty sure both Joseph and I were singing through half of it.

How Do You Know (2010)

Professional softball player Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has just been cut from the US national team and she has to figure out what to do with her life now that she is too old to be a successful athlete. To make things even more confusing, she ends up caught in a love triangle between her boyfriend, baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), and corporate executive George (Paul Rudd), who is managing a crisis of his own.

I’ve talked about my love for James L. Brooks before and this movie has a lot of the good things that his other movies do. It’s just not as good, though. I feel like I didn’t get to know any of the characters very well and since it is a character-focused drama, that’s a problem. It also focused too much on the romance aspect, the premise of Lisa needing to figure out her whole life is compelling but other than some vague mentions of graduate school, we only see her decide between the two men in her life. Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson are all great in it and I would not call it a bad movie but it just didn’t meet my expectations.

In & Out (1997)

High school English teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is thrilled when his former student, actor Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins an Academy Award for his performance as a gay soldier. However, he’s not prepared for Cameron’s acceptance speech thanking him for being an inspirational gay man in his life. Howard’s wedding (to a woman) is only a few days away and he has never considered the possibility that he is not attracted to women. His life changes drastically and he starts to reevaluate everything.

This movie seemed like it had good intentions but the execution was sloppy. It vacillated between being a drama about an important issue and a light-hearted comedy where nothing had any consequences. Kevin Kline (as always) does his best with the material he’s given and whenever he’s on screen the movie gets more watchable, but even he can’t save it. It’s not like any of the other actors did a bad job though. The movie just needed to decide what it wanted to be and tell a tighter story.

“Paradox Bound” by Peter Clines

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately because I’ve been really busy at work. I hadn’t read anything by Peter Clines before, but when Paradox Bound showed up in the mail one day billed as an “outrageously fun time-travel adventure”, it seemed like the perfect book to get me out of my slump.

Eli Teague lives in the small, dead-end town of Sanders in Maine. He has an uneventful life working as the IT manager for the local bank and he’s fairly content except for one thing – he keeps thinking about Harry, the mysterious stranger he met twice years and years ago. When Harry shows up in Sanders a third time, he wants answers. But that conversation doesn’t go anything like he planned and he finds himself pulled into a whole new world beyond his wildest imaginations – a hidden society of time travelers, faceless (and murderous) men, and the truth behind the American Dream.

This book lived up to its “outrageously fun” marketing; it’s fast paced, it has an interesting world, and the characters are entertaining. I enjoyed the mechanics of how time travel works. Magic systems that are based on deriving power from the identity of objects or places are fascinating (one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, does this a lot) and pretty much everything magical in this book fits that description. Most fantasy books I read derive their inspiration from ancient or medieval cultures and myths so it was refreshing to see America’s own mythos come to life, complete with folk heroes like John Henry.

I would love to see a movie version of this book, it reads like a sci-fi action movie (one of my favorite genres). I kept imagining how scenes from it would look like, which is pretty rare for me. I’m not sure how to explain why a book felt like a movie – I think part of it was that its structure. It tells a simple story with only a few characters, but it’s tight and cohesive and almost everything you learn becomes relevant later in the book. The characters aren’t too complicated but Eli has a solid and satisfying arc.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Peter Clines’ work. I’ll also be posting an interview with Peter Clines and giving away two copies of Paradox Bound soon, so keep your eyes out. I’ll link it here once that post is up.

Paradox Bound by Peter Clines
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 1-7, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

I’ve seen all of John Hughes’ teen movies that’s he’s famous for (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so on) but I hadn’t seen any of his later movies until I saw this one. We follow New York City executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying to make it home for Thanksgiving but is plagued by transportation delays and cancellations. He also cannot shake off his traveling companion, garrulous shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).

I haven’t seen Steve Martin in too many things but his reputation as a comedian is well-deserved if his comic timing in this movie is anything to judge by. Neal Page’s frustration throughout the movie is entirely relatable, most of us have been through transportation snafus, been around people who just don’t know when to shut up, and dealt with all the other annoyances he runs into; we just (hopefully) haven’t had to deal with all of them at the same time. There are a bunch of memorable scenes, but my favorite is probably when he’s just had enough when his rental car goes missing (NSFW for profanity). That scene is hilarious on its own but its placement in the movie is extremely cathartic.

One of the things that makes this movie so fantastic is that it does an amazing job of making you feel the way the character does almost viscerally, but for some reason you still enjoy it. Plus it’s got heart!

Other Movies Watched

As Good As It Gets (1997)

Obsessive-compulsive and misanthropic author Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) has a predictable life, he lives alone, he keeps his house neat and precisely organized, and he eats breakfast at the same table at the same restaurant served by the same waitress every day. His life suddenly changes when two things happen – his regular waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) quits to take care of her sick son, and his gay artist neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), gets beaten and robbed, leaving Melvin to take care of his dog. He begins to form an unlikely friendship with both of them but his habitual insensitivity threatens to get in the way.

As Good As It Gets is a wonderful movie. I’m used to thinking about Jack Nicholson as someone who plays powerful and confident characters that are usually in control of whatever situation they are in but this movie made me realize what a good actor he was. He’s simultaneously cantankerous and vulnerable and you can’t help but feel for him even when he says and does the most outrageously rude things. I’m a big fan of Helen Hunt and she’s excellent as usual. This is apparently the most recent movie that has won both the Best Actor and the Best Actress Oscars (Greg Kinnear also got nominated for Best Supporting Actor). And Cuba Gooding Jr. was delightful in his part as Simon’s boyfriend.

I’ve just been focusing on the acting but everything else about it is good too. The acting wouldn’t have mattered if the movie hadn’t been as well-written as it is, the way that the characters grow over the movie is deeply satisfying. I am fond of the trope where two broken people end up fixing themselves through helping the other one with their problems and this is one of the best things I’ve seen with that narrative.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I was looking forward to watching this movie because after watching Broadcast News, Spanglish, and As Good As It Gets, I think James L Brooks is one of those directors (like Ang Lee) that really knows how to get nuanced and subtle performances from actors. Plus I’ve been tracking how many Oscar Best Picture Winners I’ve watched so far, and this was on the list.

We follow Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) for a few years of their lives, starting with Emma’s wedding. They go through a lot (both separately and together) and their stubbornness means their relationship is often contentious. They have a bond that’s not broken easily though and that keeps them going even when everything around them is falling apart.

This movie reminded me of Steel Magnolias; although Steel Magnolias followed a group of women, two of the main characters are a mother and a daughter and it begins with the daughter’s wedding just as in this one (and Shirley MacLaine is in both). Terms of Endearment just follows the lives of Aurora and Emma without an overarching story, just an emotional arc. It’s often funny and sometimes quite sad, and it makes you feel like you know these people in real life. The actors do a superb job and the chemistry between them is palpable. Although this movie is primarily about the women, Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels also stand out in their supporting character roles as well.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Woody Allen directs, writes, and stars in this movie about sportswriter Lenny who is a little bored with his life. When he discovers that his adopted son Max has a genius level intellect, he decides to find Max’s biological parents since he believes that he must have inherited it from them. Instead he finds Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a prostitute and occasional porn star who is one of the most empty-headed people he has met, but he still feels inexplicably drawn to her.

Mighty Aphrodite is structured like an ancient Greek play (and named after a Greek goddess too), it has a Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) who help tell the story by breaking the fourth wall, both talking directly to us and talking to the characters as well. It’s an interesting device and I thought it seemed pretentious at first but it fits the story and the movie well. This is only the second Woody Allen movie I’ve seen (after Annie Hall) and I’m not sure if he plays a similarly neurotic character in all of them, but it works for this one. Mira Sorvino is marvelous in her role as an extremely vacuous but indisputably nice woman, she won a well-deserved Oscar for it. Helena Bonham Carter actually plays it straight as Lenny’s bored wife and she’s good at it. It’s definitely a quirky movie but I’d recommend it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming features the third new movie version of Spider-Man in the last fifteen years, but this time he’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and played by someone closer to being an actual teenager (Tom Holland). And thankfully it’s not an origin story; Spider-Man has been fighting crime for a while and has already been noticed by the Avengers (as we saw in Captain America: Civil War last year).

While this movie features the trademark Marvel style (including the constant quips which I used to find funny but seem obnoxious now), it also takes a lot of inspiration from classic teen movies. Yes, Peter Parker is coming to terms with his superhero identity, but he also needs to get his homework done, ask the girl he likes out to homecoming, and try to not let down his school’s science trivia (I think) team competing in the nationals. And it’s a decent teen movie! Apparently the cast and crew were drawing heavily from John Hughes movies so that makes sense.

I’m not sure if it was a great superhero movie or not, but I liked that it wasn’t just a superhero movie and I liked Michael Keaton as the villain (he sure does like his winged super-roles – Batman, Birdman, The Vulture). I do wish Iron Man wasn’t such a big part of the movie, though. As likable as Robert Downey Jr. is as Iron Man, needs to stop invading other superheroes’ movies and making them all about him (see also Captain America: Civil War). It detracted from Spider-Man’s arc, turning his motivations for fighting crime from his idealistic roots to just wanting to be accepted by someone he admires.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet when they’re both hired as sheep herders on the remote Brokeback Mountain. They spend months together and as they get to know each other, they end up forming a deeper relationship (I’m not sure how to describe it; “falling in love” seems too extreme and “having sex” seems too cold). They go their separate ways after the season ends but keep being drawn to each other and continue their relationship clandestinely for years afterward.

I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this movie until now, given its acclaim and my love for Ang Lee. It’s a very well-made movie but I did not like it as much as I like most of his movies, primarily because I found it boring. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal did a terrific job, the direction, the writing, and the cinematography was outstanding, and I can’t find any notable flaws with the movie so I’m not sure why I found it boring. Maybe it’s because it’s a romance and I find most romances boring, I didn’t feel close to or invested in either of them and so I couldn’t understand why they were even drawn to each other.

The French Connection (1971)

Two New York City narcotic cops, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo, are trying to intercept a large drug shipment that’s being smuggled in from France by suave businessman Alain Charnier.

That pretty much summarizes the movie, it’s a slow moving thriller that focuses on the characters and the cat-and-mouse game they play. Our primary hero, Popeye (played with his characteristic intensity by Gene Hackman) is an irascible and bigoted alcoholic, but he takes his job extremely seriously. The man he is tracking down, Charnier, seems like a cultured gentleman but he’s also a hardened criminal. The way the movie focuses on their opposing personalities gives it a lot of its character. The chase sequences are tightly executed, giving the movie a sense of real tension that modern action movies don’t have. The movie’s design and cinematography add to the tone it’s established, everything about the movie is dirty and gritty.

The French Connection won the Best Picture Oscar when it came out and it seems like one of those movies that transformed a genre entirely (or maybe created a new one?) I can see its influences in so many movies. But it seems a little unpolished, as pioneering movies often do; it uses a new way of telling a story but which hasn’t been perfected through repetition yet.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 24-30, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ride with the Devil (1999)

Another Ang Lee movie that I had never really heard of! And one of my favorite genres too – a period drama.

The Civil War has just begun and Missouri natives Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) join the fight out of a desire for revenge after Union soldiers kill Jack Bull’s father. They join the Bushwhackers, a vigilante army that opposes the Union-loyalist Jayhawkers from across the border in Kansas. As the war progresses, however, their sense of purpose grows murkier and their priorities start to change.

Ang Lee is amazing at getting nuanced performances from his actors and this movie is no exception. The characters never seem like they’re in a movie, they sometimes surprise you and other times they’re predictable, just like real people. I liked that the protagonists were Confederate soldiers and their story was told without being moralistic in any way; they are just people trying to do the right thing – protect their community and avenge their losses, not fight to defend political ideals.

Other Movies Watched

20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women tells the story of a group of people living in a boarding house in late seventies Southern California. The house is owned by Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), who is growing increasingly baffled by her teenage son Jamie and enlists the remaining members of the household as well as Jamie’s friend Julie to provide other influences in his life.

This movie is hard to describe, but it’s really good. You could describe it as a standard independent dramedy; it centers on a group of quirky characters that all grow in different ways throughout the movie, but it’s done well enough that it doesn’t feel standard. Annette Bening’s performance as the contradictory and irrepressible Dorothea is excellent. I read that the movie is based on writer/director Mike Mills’ mother so of course the characterization is well done. Parts of 20th Century Women reminded me a lot of another semi-autobiographical movie, Almost Famous, but it also focuses on the women around Jamie rather than just telling one coming of age story (hence the title) and that makes it even more compelling.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The Pursuit of Happyness is based on entrepreneur Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness as he was raising his young son on his own and trying to start a new career as a stockbroker. It stars real-life father-son duo Will and Jaden Smith (and is thankfully much better than After Earth, the other movie that they play a father and son in).

I didn’t know anything about this movie before going in and I was surprised that it was a fairly serious drama. On the surface it seems just another inspirational story of a person being successful through hard work but the details and the acting make it more than the sum of its parts. I’m a big fan of Will Smith (especially in his more dramatic roles) and he’s as good as ever. He does get to use his signature comic timing even though he goes through a lot of awful things. He also has great chemistry with his son and that’s the emotional heart of the movie.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

Joan Wilder is a successful New York City author who writes adventurous romance novels. She’s absolutely the last person who would get mixed up in any trouble… until her sister is kidnapped in Colombia, anyway. She travels to Colombia to arrange for her sister’s ransom but events soon get out of hand and she must go on the run with roguish soldier of fortune Jack Colton to get away from the corrupt Colonel Zolo.

If I had to use one word to describe Romancing the Stone, it would be “fun”. It is so much fun that if dictionaries had pictures, the entry for “fun” would have a Romancing the Stone poster under it. I enjoy the trope where a creator gets tossed into a situation that relates to their work and this is a great example of it. Michael Douglas hams it up wonderfully as Jack Colton (he reminded me of his character in The Ghost and the Darkness). And who doesn’t love a classic adventure story involving jungles, treasure, a vile villain, drug lords, a crocodile pit, and so on?

As if there weren’t enough reasons to like this movie already, its unexpected success launched director Robert Zemeckis’s career and enabled him to make his next movie (and one of my favorites of all time), Back to the Future.

Falling Down (1993)

Falling Down follows William Foster (Michael Douglas) as he makes his way across Los Angeles to visit his daughter on her birthday. Recent events have left him teetering on the edge of sanity and when his day starts off with a traffic jam and a shopkeeper that refuses to give him the change he needs to make a phone call, he is pushed right off that edge. In parallel we follow retiring police sergeant Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) who is tracking Foster by the string of crimes committed along his path.

I thought this movie would be comedic but it plays it straight. Foster is clearly mentally ill and treated as such throughout. Michael Douglas does a fantastic job; he’s said it’s his favorite performance of his career and I can see why – he portrays a nuanced character that I both empathized with and was terrified of. The movie also has a great oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere that pushes you to side with Foster even more. It’s not the most cheerful movie but it has some terrific scenes (this scene at a fast food restaurant is probably the most famous) and is definitely worth watching.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s life isn’t great – she’s constantly berated by her demanding father, she has no real friends, and she’s stuck in her dead end hometown of Porpoise Spit. She spends her days listening to ABBA and dreaming of having a beautiful wedding and a husband that will help her escape her life. She is nowhere near achieving that goal until one day she has an opportunity to steal some money from her family and get away from them.

I wasn’t sure about whether I would like Muriel’s Wedding for the first half of the movie; Muriel is a a fairly pathetic character in the beginning. But this movie has plenty of heart and it eventually completely won me over. Toni Collette is perfect as Muriel (although I barely recognized her, she put on 40 lb for the role). And the movie wasn’t just a quirky comedy, it had realistic character development in some unexpected ways.

Julie & Julia (2009)

This movie is based on two sources – the book My Life in France by Julia Child and a blog by Julie Powell, a woman who decided to cook every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. It follows both women’s lives in parallel as they go from uncertainty about their direction in life to success.

I loved the parts of the movie that focused on Julia Child. Meryl Streep plays her and does as a good job as anyone could, although she is a bit stiffer than the real Julia. Stanley Tucci is also fantastic as Julia’s husband Paul. I didn’t really care for the Julie segments, the character seemed too self-involved and annoyed me. Amy Adams is a great actress and I probably would have disliked her character much more if she hadn’t been the one to play her. The movie is well made but I just found myself wishing that it was a Julia Child biopic instead.