“Snapshot” by Brandon Sanderson

Snapshot is a near-future science fiction novella set in a world where an entire city can be recreated virtually so that detectives can investigate crimes (kind of like the movie Source Code.) We follow Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz as they investigate a murder and stumble onto a larger crime than the one they were originally assigned.

I’m usually a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work, but I didn’t think Snapshot was that good. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it didn’t pull me in like most of his other work. I was intrigued by the premise, but I wasn’t quite able to connect with the characters, and since the story depends entirely on the relationship between Davis and Chaz, I wasn’t invested in the outcome. The book seemed to be going for a gritty tone, and I don’t think that is the author’s forte – I usually associate his worldbuilding with a lot of detail, but this book seemed very shallow somehow.

I think Snapshot would work better as a movie (not something I say very often), and it’s actually been optioned by MGM, so I’m hoping something comes out of that.

Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson
Vault Books, 2017 | Buy the book

“Within the Sanctuary of Wings” by Marie Brennan

I’m a huge fan of the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, and I’ve been waiting for this concluding volume, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, for a long time. This series stars Isabella (Lady Trent), pioneering female dragon naturalist, in a secondary world reminiscent of the Victorian era. Isabella has trekked all over the world in pursuit of dragons, and this installment is no exception – she’s chasing a rumor of a new dragon species to the inhospitable Mrtyahaima mountains, home to the tallest peaks in the world. And of course she’s also getting mixed up in international politics along the way.

One of the reasons I like these books so much is that the climax is always about discovery – sure, there’s adventure, action, and near disaster, and maybe the story wouldn’t be so compelling without them, but lots of books have those. Isabella’s drive to learn more about her world is what makes her story stand out. The previous four books have been slowly building up to a great draconic revelation and I was eager to find out what it was. In retrospect, it ended up being obvious (a fact that Isabella alludes to in her narrative), but the author has been doing such a good job of building up the world and the rules that it operates on that I was as amazed as the characters.

Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this book. If you haven’t read this series, start at A Natural History of Dragons and keep going. If you have read the series, this is a great conclusion, it’s satisfying and there are no loose ends, so stop reading my review and acquire the book!

Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan (Lady Trent's Memoirs, #5)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 16-22, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Green Mile (1999)

I’ve been wanting to watch The Green Mile for a really long time – The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time, and this is also a historical movie set in prison, directed by Frank Darabont, based on a Stephen King story. Plus, it stars Tom Hanks! How could it not be good?

Paul Edgecombe is an officer in charge of death row at a Louisiana prison during the 1930s. His block gets a new inmate, John Coffey, who is the gentlest inmate Paul has encountered, despite the horrific crimes he has been convicted of. It eventually becomes apparent that John has mysterious supernatural powers (good ones, not scary ones) as he starts to affect the lives of many of the people he meets.

The Green Mile is a long movie – over three hours – and it tells its story slowly. This is a good thing, there’s a great sense of atmosphere, and we get to know all of the characters very well. This movie would not have worked without Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance as John Coffey, he utterly sells the innocence and suffering without ever coming across as hokey. I also liked that most of the prison guards were portrayed as nice people who genuinely wanted to make the lives of their prisoners better, even when the world hated them.

Other Movies Watched

Escape from New York (1981)

In the future, crime has risen astronomically, and Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When the President’s plane crashes into the prison, war hero and convicted bank robber Snake Plissken (one of Kurt Russell’s most iconic roles) is sent in to retrieve him in exchange for amnesty. I saw Escape from New York a few years ago, but I didn’t remember much of it except that it was a great sci-fi action classic, and Snake Plissken was awesome. Well, that’s still true, but this time around I’m much more familiar with the tropes of sci-fi action genre, so I noticed more details, like how great the worldbuilding was, even with very little dialogue, and how much this movie influenced later sci-fi action movies.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Steel Magnolias follows the lives of a group of women in a small Louisiana town over a couple of years – Truvy (Dolly Parton), the local beauty salon owner, Annelle (Daryl Hannah), her new employee with a troubled past, and four of her customers – older widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), mother/daughter M’Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby (Julia Roberts), and their neighbor Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). M’Lynn and Shelby are the real heart of the movie, although every woman has a character arc. I don’t think I’ve seen many movies which revolved entirely around the life of women in such a realistic way, I wish there were more. It’s heartwarming, tragic, frustrating, and really good.

Secret In Their Eyes (2015)

I am a fan of writer/director Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass), so I was excited about Secret In Their Eyes. I watched the trailer a while ago, and I was expecting some sort of mediocre murder mystery thriller, but fortunately the movie turned out to be much more interesting than that. It’s based on the 2009 Argentine film of the same name (which won the best foreign film Oscar) and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ray Kasten, a former FBI officer haunted by an old case involving the rape and murder of his colleague Jess’s daughter. The case was never solved, but when the alleged perpetrator resurfaces after 13 years, he gets all of the old investigating officers involved in a new effort to capture him. This movie has a great cast, and Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts (whose part was originally written for a man) in particular are excellent. The movie has great tension without resorting to melodrama, and the resolution that it builds up to is very satisfying.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has spent all his life in an orphanage. His mentor and the orphanage’s doctor, Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), expects him to continue working at the orphanage, but he wants to see the world. He ends up leaving with a couple that visits the orphanage and gets a job as an apple picker. The Cider House Rules is very much a coming of age story, and it’s an unusually good one. Homer learns about the world, and that includes some immensely screwed up things happening, but the movie presents both the bad and the good things in a matter-of-fact way. I think the most notable thing about this movie for me was that it portrayed kind people, terrible people, and people that were neither. Most movies don’t display such a diversity of characterization, and I enjoyed it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos is a first generation Greek-American who is the despair of her family because she hasn’t gotten married yet even though she’s 30. She works at her father’s restaurant but dreams of a more fulfilling life. She gets more than she bargained for when she falls in love with Ian, a WASP, and they decide to get married. Despite the title of the movie, the wedding doesn’t take up more than a third of the movie, most of it is a coming of age story where Toula finally begins to feel comfortable with both herself and her roots. It was great to see a movie about the more ethnic communities of America – many of the situations and scenes were uncannily familiar to me as a recent immigrant who married a more traditional American. It’s a pretty good movie, it’s funny, it has heart, and the fact that star Nia Vardalos is also the writer lends it authenticity.

Elizabethtown (2005)

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has just been fired from his company for designing a flawed shoe that resulted in huge losses. He doesn’t feel like he has anything to live for anymore, but before he can follow through on his plan to commit suicide, he learns that his father has died. He travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to retrieve his father’s body and discovers a whole new side to life, especially through the bubbly flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) he meets on the plane. I usually like Cameron Crowe’s movies, but I wasn’t a huge fan of this one – it’s got all the components of a good movie, but it felt empty somehow. This movie also originated the “manic pixie dream girl” trope for a good reason – it was hard for me to believe that Kirsten Dunst’s character was anything approaching a real person.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 9-15, 2017

Favorite Movies of the Week

Broadcast News (1987)

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a news producer who is very good at her job but also has daily emotional breakdowns. She works closely with brilliant and cocky reporter Aaron Altman (who’s in love with her), but when handsome news anchor Tom Grunick joins the network, she can’t help but pursue him despite the fact that he does not share any of her ideals about what news should be. I don’t think that’s a very good description of the movie, but I’m not sure I can do better – this movie is just about the interaction of Jane, Aaron, and Tom until external circumstances make it impossible for them to work together, set in the background of a changing news landscape.

The only other James L. Brooks directed movie I’ve seen is Spanglish, and judging by both these movies, he’s one of my new favorite directors because he makes great movies about real, ordinary people interacting with each other. The only other director that I can think of who consistently has such identifiable women is Sofia Coppola. Broadcast News was apparently nominated for seven Oscars, and that makes total sense to me. Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt all put in amazing performances – very few movies make you feel like you know characters as well as these ones. I also thought the conclusion of the movie was satisfying and realistic.

The Dressmaker (2015)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Australian movie described as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”. Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, an expert dressmaker who returns to her childhood home of Dungatar after a long absence. She’s bitter since she was accused of murder as a child and driven out of town, but tries to set up a business since she needs to take care of her sick mother. But people in small towns can be utterly unforgiving, and she doesn’t find it easy.

At first, you think this is the kind of movie where a stranger moves into a small town and they’re quirky but eventually change everyone’s lives for the better. Tilly’s dresses make people look fabulous and turn the fortunes of a few women around. But The Dressmaker is actually a black comedy, and subverts a lot of those tropes. I don’t want to say more – it’s best experienced for yourself, but not only was this a better movie than I thought it would be before I saw it, it was way better than I thought it would be even midway through the movie.

Other Movies Watched

Maverick (1994)

Professional gambler Bret Maverick is a few thousand dollars short of the money he needs to enter a one-of-a-kind high stakes poker game, but he just isn’t having a very good week. This is a western comedy (which I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any other examples of before) and it’s a lot of fun. Mel Gibson has impeccable comic timing as Maverick, Jodie Foster is endearing as the incorrigible thief Annabelle, and those two actors really make the movie work. Some popular western tropes are subverted (lovingly) – the writer of the movie also wrote The Princess Bride, and there’s a lot of the same charm. Plus there are a lot of cameos and references to other movies – my favorite was when Danny Glover (Mel Gibson’s partner in the Lethal Weapon series) showed up briefly.

Patriots Day (2016)

Peter Berg’s second movie of 2016 about a real-life disaster starring Mark Wahlberg (after Deepwater Horizon), Patriots Day tells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. I actually lived an hour away in Providence when this happened, but I knew very little about it because I was in India visiting my parents at the time and I missed most of the real-time coverage. The movie tells the story well, we see events from a few different perspectives – bombing victims, police officers, and the victims of the aftermath when the bombers fled. It’s formulaic, but it makes you sympathize with the situation without trying to tell you how to feel by focusing on melodrama. I read about the real events afterwards, and it seems the movie actually stayed very faithful to the facts, which I appreciated.

Little Man Tate (1991)

Jodie Foster’s directorial debut is about seven year old child prodigy Fred Tate who is torn between his mother (Jodie Foster), who is loving can’t understand his mind and the founder of an institute for gifted children (Dianne Wiest), who gets him intellectually but is neurotic and stiff otherwise. Both women care for Fred, but have very different approaches to dealing with him, sort of like the central conflict of A Bronx Tale. Unlike A Bronx Tale, though, the movie is not about the kid, it’s about the women’s journey to growing to be able to provide Fred with both an emotionally stable and intellectually challenging environment. I liked most of the movie quite a bit, but I thought the ending was too neat and oversimplified a complicated situation. I thought the kid playing Fred did a terrific job, though.

The Client (1994)

Eleven year old Mark Sway and his younger brother Ricky are playing in the woods when they stumble into a famous mafia lawyer who is committing suicide, but not before he tells Mark the location of a recently murdered senator’s body. Suddenly Mark becomes the recipient of a whole lot of attention – from the ambitious district attorney who is determined to convict the mobsters, from the mob who wants to silence him before he says anything, and from reporters. This movie is based on the John Grisham book of the same name, and John Grisham movies are a genre of their own (I’ve seen The Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, Runaway Jury, and The Pelican Brief so far) – they’re thrillers with over-the-top plots and melodramatic characters, usually involving lawyers. The Client fit that mold very well, with some great performances by Susan Sarandon as inexperienced lawyer Reggie Love and Brad Renfro in his film debut as Mark Sway.

The Discovery (2017)

I’m always looking for new, good, science-fiction films, so I was excited to read about the Netflix original film The Discovery in an Ars Technica article. Robert Redford’s in it, plus I enjoyed both director Charlie McDowell’s first movie The One I Love, and the last Netflix original science fiction movie I watched (Spectral), so I figured The Discovery would be pretty good. Unfortunately I was wrong and this movie is terrible. Movies that deal with metaphysics can be amazing, but this movie seems to think it’s being profound when it’s actually incredibly trite. The dialogue is awkward at best, and the two main romantic leads have no chemistry. In fact, everyone’s acting seems stiff and wooden. Hopefully this isn’t the standard that Netflix is setting for their original movies.

“Lock In” by John Scalzi

After reading The Collapsing Empire, I was in the mood to read more Scalzi, and luckily, I’ve had Lock In on my to-be-read list ever since it came out.

Lock In is a near future novel set after a disease known as Haden’s syndrome left millions of people across the world “locked in” – unable to control their bodies but fully conscious. High-profile patients spurred the accelerated development of technology to allow these “Hadens” to participate in life again though neural implants, virtual reality, and robot bodies, among other things. It’s been a while since that all happened, and the government benefits that many Hadens relied on is about to be repealed, and it is an uncertain time.

This is all just background for the story, though – the actual story begins when rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is assigned to investigate a murder where the prime suspect is an Integrator (a regular human who allows Hadens to rent their body.) It stays a pretty solid mystery/thriller type novel throughout, and usually I don’t care that much about that genre, but the worldbuilding and slowly unfolding plot kept me hooked. Scalzi takes the premise and runs with it, exploring how a disease like Haden’s would affect society in both big and small ways. I felt like I identified with the main character a little more than most people because I work remotely and haven’t met many of my coworkers in person.

If you’d like to find out more about the world, Tor.com has a novella that explores the history of Haden’s here. I think this is one of Scalzi’s better books, even though the content was pretty different, it reminded me a lot of the thoughtfulness of Old Man’s War.  I can’t wait to read the follow up, Head On.

Lock In by John Scalzi (Lock In, #1)
Tor Books, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 2-8, 2017

Midnight Special (2016)

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

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

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

 Hidden Figures (2016)

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

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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

Live by Night (2016)

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

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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

Munich (2005)

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

A United Kingdom (2016)

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 26-Apr 1, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Silence (2016)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

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

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

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

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

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

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

Monsters (2010)

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

Tin Cup (1996)

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

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

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

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

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

A Perfect World (1993)

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

Analyze This (1999)

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

Collateral Beauty (2016)

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

The Gamechangers (2015)

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

“A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sins of Empire” by Brian McClellan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Movie Reviews: Mar 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Bull Durham (1988)

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

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

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

Other Movies Watched

Michael Clayton (2007)

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

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

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

We Bought A Zoo (2011)

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

What Women Want (2000)

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

The Contender (2000)

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

Sing (2016)

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

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

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