In one of the year-end episodes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, panelist Glen Weldon picked out Obvious Child as a counterexample to the claim that 2014 was a bad year for film. The movie had already been on my list for a while at that point, but Weldon’s recommendation was another reminder to move it up in the queue, especially now that the movie is on Netflix. I’m glad I did.
Obvious Child takes its name from a 1990 Paul Simon song, one with the light, airy melody and propulsive rhythms I think of when I think of Simon’s music during that era. And, as was so common with a Paul Simon song, the lightness and danceability of the music belied the complexity of the lyrics. “The Obvious Child” is a wistful song, one about the necessity of growing up, and of facing who you turn out to be when you get there. In a lot of ways, it’s an apt title for this movie.
Jenny Slate plays a young stand-up comedienne, Donna Stern, stuck in that phase of your early twenties where you’re out in the world but don’t yet feel like an adult. After a break-up and a casual (if adorable) fling, she finds out she’s pregnant, and then decides to have an abortion. Now, this summary sounds fairly trite and simple, possibly even didactic, but Obvious Child is anything but. Rather, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and honest portrait of the mess and struggle of early adulthood. Slate is, by turns, funny and poignant, juvenile and mature, brash and vulnerable. So much of the movie hinges on her ability to give a good performance, and she more than lives up to the challenge. You’re left with something that sounds almost like an oxymoron: an abortion story that somehow manages to be a feel-good movie.
It’s not going to be for everyone, this movie. Clearly, some people will find the central tension and its resolution distasteful. But I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie before that deals with abortion so honestly. It’s never heavy-handed or even particularly partisan, focusing instead on the people involved and what they go through. It’s a story, not a lesson. And, in any case, there’s so much more going on: Donna’s relationship with her parents, her place in her community of friends, and, most importantly, her relationship to her own life. The real climax of the film doesn’t take place in a clinic, but in a comedy club where Donna’s stand-up becomes the vehicle for her accepting her situation and her decisions, and that those decisions are hers to make.
I can’t say for sure how you will feel about this movie, but I can say that I really enjoyed it.
Viewed: 1/16/2015 | Released: 8/29/2014 | Score: A-
By Ann Leckie
I made up my mind to read Ancillary Justice when I saw Kameron Hurley tweet that her book The Mirror Empire (which I read and loved last year) would never have gotten published if not for the success of Ancillary Justice. The author of the weirdest and most innovative fantasy of the past decade is tipping her hat to this book? I’m in.
One of the first things that anybody will mention about Ancillary Justice—at least, the first thing that everyone has mentioned to me about it—is the way gender is treated. Or rather, the way it isn’t treated; throughout the book, the narrator simply refers to everyone using feminine pronouns. As becomes clear fairly quickly, this is because she is an artificial intelligence, and moreover one that was created by a society where gender differences aren’t recognized. It makes for an interesting tension in spots where she has to interact with people who do care about gender, but the most impressive thing about this choice is how little it ends up mattering for most of the story. That is, I was forced to look at how my biases color my perceptions when everyone in the book is a “she,” but in terms of the arc of the story, it mostly doesn’t factor.
Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera and revenge tale, told from the perspective of a person who used to be a spaceship. Now, that sounds completely bonkers, and I suppose in some ways it is, but accepting an AI as a protagonist turns out to be a lot less mind-bending than dealing with the central premise, which deals with the concept of a consciousness being spread out over many individuals. In this universe, you see, a huge space empire (reminiscent of Rome in many ways) has been conquered using sentient spaceships who control large groups of “ancillaries,” which are essentially human bodies whose brains have been connected to the ship’s AI. But the ancillaries are not only controlled by the ship, rather, the ship’s awareness and “self” is spread across all of those bodies simultaneously. This leads to a few scenes—including some of the most tense and exciting ones in the whole book—that become a little difficult to track, as the narrator speaks of an “I” that is both singular and multiple.
Indeed, the whole motive force behind Ancillary Justice’s plot comes from this idea of multiplicity, and author Ann Leckie explores some really intriguing ideas about identity and consciousness over the course of the story. Moreover, she does it in a way that’s not only intelligent, but also highly entertaining. The whole thing is just really well done, which ought to be obvious of a novel that won both the Hugo and the Nebula in its year. Despite the fact that the pile of books on my nightstand is still quite tall from my Christmas haul, I couldn’t resist running out and picking up the sequel, Ancillary Sword. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Started: 12/17/2014 | Finished: 1/14/2015
The Wolf of Wall Street
In the years since the 2008 crisis, we’ve all heard a lot of stories about Wall Street and its excesses, so it makes sense that a movie like this one would get a lot of attention, especially given the enduring popularity of the Scorsese-DiCaprio partnership. But, coming away from The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a little difficult for me to put my finger on what I think about the film and what it’s saying.
In a lot of ways this movie has a lot in common with another Scorsese classic, Goodfellas. Both follow a charismatic but unstable (and unlikeable) character’s rise and fall, charting his journey into a secretive subculture that is defined by power and corruption. Both are stories of hubris, entitlement, misogyny, and violence. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Goodfellas, but as I recall it, this one doesn’t quite measure up.
Perhaps it’s just that the structures of the two stories are so similar that this one feels like it’s already been done. Or maybe it’s just that this one is newer, rather than being the “classic” that Goodfellas has become. But I think perhaps it has to do with the nature of the transgressions in each movie, and the moral tones of each.
The thing is, however much organized crime has fascinated the moviegoing public for much of the history of film, the mafia are in many ways small potatoes compared to Wall Street. To be sure, the criminals we see in movies like Goodfellas or The Godfather are ruthless and powerful, but even at the height of their influence, the mafia could never cause the sort of global meltdown we saw in 2008. So, when you consider the way that both movies dance right on the line between condemning and condoning their main characters, Goodfellas seems a bit more harmless than The Wolf of Wall Street.
Like any Scorsese film, this one is well made and has some good performances. Unlike his best movies, though, this one felt very long. At one point Juliette and I turned to each other, both about to complain about how it felt like we’d been watching a long time, only to realize that the film was only about halfway through. And, at that, The Wolf of Wall Street is a minute shorter than Goodfellas, though I don’t remember the latter dragging in the same way this one did.
Not a bad movie, at the end of the day, but in many ways problematic. And in that, perhaps it’d be easier for me if it had been bad, because it would be easier to write off. What I’m left with as it is, is a movie that I’m uncomfortable with, and not in a way that feels purposeful.
Viewed: 1/10/2015 | Released: 12/25/2013 | Score: B
2014 Film Reviews
I saw 11 movies in the theater in 2014. Up to this point—with a few exceptions—new theatrical releases are the only movies I've reviewed on this blog. But it occurred to me that, 1.) I don't see all that many movies these days in any venue, and 2.) I've been reviewing all of the books I read regardless of format or publication date. Thus, I decided to include rentals and streaming as candidates for review, bringing my total for the year to a whopping 13. Once again, in chronological order:
Walking With Dinosaurs: Oh, the things we do for our kids. Looking over my notes, this is probably the worst movie I've seen in the past five years. Maybe longer. Imagine if you took The Land Before Time but made the voice acting terrible, gave it a stupid modern-day framing story, switched from charismatic hand-drawn animation to sleek but soulless CGI, and weighed the whole thing down with a veneer of edutainment (which fails at being either educational or entertaining). That's pretty much what you have here. My six-year-old liked it, but fortunately not so much that it's likely I'll have to see it again. (IMDb)
Her: Of the two heavily nominated movies of 2013 that are included in this list, this is certainly the one I liked better. I'm hot-and-cold with Joaquin Phoenix, finding him sometimes wonderfully nuanced and sometimes overly self-conscious as an actor. His performance in Her was definitely the former, just a wonderful portrayal of a buttoned-up sad sack in an alienating world. And, of course, I was impressed by how much of a presence and personality Scarlett Johansson projected using just her voice. Amy Adams was great in her supporting role, too, the first I can think of where she wasn't stuck in her former cute-as-a-button pigeonhole. (IMDb)
American Hustle: Walking out of the theater after this movie, Juliette and I turned to each other to ask whether either of us understood why American Hustle had garnered such high praise from so many corners. It's not that it was a bad movie—really, it was a perfectly adequate little caper story. But the hype leading up to the awards season had been so high, we both expected something that ultimately the movie didn't deliver. The performances were fine, but mostly a bit over-the-top for our taste. The story was fine, but nothing special. There were some funny parts and some tense moments, but in the end nothing really stood out to either of us. I have a feeling that this isn't going to be one that enters the canon, but so far I've been in the minority with this movie, so I wouldn't be too surprised to be wrong. (IMDb)
The Lego Movie: One of the things that having a six-year-old has given me the opportunity to do is revisit a lot of the pop culture of my youth. And although much of it still holds my interest via nostalgia, I have to admit that it's made me realize how great kids these days have it. Really, a whole lot of the children's entertainment from my youth is just crap. Meanwhile, my kids get to grow up with stuff like The Lego Movie, which I not only loved when I took my son to see it in the theater, but I've been more than happy to re-watch several times since we bought the Blu-Ray. It's funny, smart, and just completely entertaining. (IMDb)
Muppets Most Wanted: As I recall, I really enjoyed The Muppets when it came out back in 2011. I wasn't expecting much from this sequel but, if anything, I think I liked it even more than the last one. The songs were better, the plot more in line with the sort of capers I remember from the old Muppet movies, and the jokes were just as good. Heck, I even liked Ricky Gervais, so something must have been going right. (IMDb)
The Grand Budapest Hotel: As far as I can tell, most people tend to fall into one of two camps with Wes Anderson: you either think he's a genius or he's pretentious and twee. Given that The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou are two of my favorite films, you can guess where I land with respect to Mr. Anderson. And The Grand Budapest Hotel may be his best work yet. It's visually gorgeous, with all the cinematographic hallmarks of a Wes Anderson movie but in a way that felt—to me, at least—more organic and heartfelt. It's never as emotionally raw as the climax of The Darjeeling Limited, possibly not quite as funny as The Royal Tenenbaums (though my opinion there may change with more viewings), but it all comes together just so, a perfect balance of affectation and emotion. (IMDb)
Don Jon: It's funny, the more I think about this movie, the less I like it. In general, I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, both as an actor and as a general creative force. And I always have a soft spot for Tony Danza, and I thought Julianne Moore was quite good. But the sexual politics portrayed in the movie were problematic, to say the least. On the one hand, the movie is a sharp criticism of porn addiction and the sort of bro-y, meat-headed, overt chauvenism of the "guido" type, of which the title character is a member. And that's fine. But it also finds an equal problem with the rom-com-fueled, "a real man would do anything for his woman" sort of objectification that a woman can do to a man. And while the latter is certainly problematic on a personal level, it just doesn't have the same structural ramifications of the former. So, despite a certain amount of charm, I'm left feeling kind of uncomfortable with this movie. (IMDb)
Sleepwalk With Me: Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite recurring contributors to This American Life, and I was quite excited when I heard that he and Ira Glass had teamed up to make this movie. Sadly, 2012 just wasn't a year where I managed to get out to see a lot of small, independent movies. Or any, actually. But when I saw that it was available via Netflix, I added it to my queue immediately, and while it was shaky in the ways that movies from first-time writer/directors often are, I really enjoyed it. It was funny, heartfelt, and painfully honest in just the way I love about Birbiglia's stand-up, and more than any other movie that I've seen, it really focused in on the life of a young road comedian, which is something I've always found fascinating. (IMDb)
Chef: It's an odd coincidence that I'd happen to see two movies in a row that I heard about via a podcast. I became aware of Chef when its writer, director, and star, Jon Favreau, appeared on Marc Maron's WTF podcast. In that interview, Maron described the movie as sweet, and Favreau talked about how it wasn't the kind of movie that would have gotten made if he hadn't done it himself. I'm glad that he did, because it was one of the most heartwarming movies I've seen in recent years. Favreau really hit all the right notes to appeal to someone like me, with beautiful food, self-deprecating humor, a great cast, and a feel-good story that would make Frank Capra proud. It's an unabashedly sweet and earnest movie that yet manages to avoid becoming overly saccharine. Thinking about it now, I can't help but smile. (IMDb)
How to Train Your Dragon 2: Dreamworks has really had a great run of animated films over the past several years. That's not news to anyone who watches animated films, of course, but it's still striking to me how quickly and strongly they switched from being a mere "not Pixar" to an animation studio to be reckoned with. I absolutely adored the first movie, and even though I'm on record as being tired of sequels and movie franchises, for some reason animation tends to slip around those reservations of mine; I was quite excited to see this one. And, boy, it delivered, maintaining the laughs and thrills of the original while broadening the scope of both the setting and the characters' personal histories. I just loved it. (IMDb)
Planes: Fire and Rescue: This one, though, I didn't love. Here's the thing: it's basically the exact same movie as the first Planes, which while visually exhilarating was completely flat and boring in just about every other way. The first one was just a cheap knock-off of Cars, which, itself, was not one of Pixar's better movies. This one is an even cheaper knock-off of the first one, so if you're above elementary-school age, it's probably not going to do a whole lot for you. (IMDb)
Big Hero 6: For the past two months since we went and saw Big Hero 6, my son has been talking about the main characters, drawing them, pretending to be them, and asking for toys of them at least every other day. Suffice it to say, this was probably his favorite movie of the year. I liked it quite a lot, too. It's gotten to the point where I'm no longer surprised when a kids' animated movie makes me both laugh and get choked up—indeed, the stinkers like Walking With Dinosaurs and Planes: Fire and Rescue have become the ones that feel like outliers. Children's entertainment has just gotten so great, and I'm just happy that I get to be a parent now that that's the case. (IMDb)
Annie: The last movie of our year was the remake of the classic musical Annie. Juliette and I, of course, grew up with the 1982 version, which Jason has also seen and enjoyed. We weren't sure how this one would measure up, especially since we'd heard that much of the music was going to be different. (I'm also just generally skeptical of remakes.) But both Juliette and I agreed that this new version of Annie was pretty great. Many of the songs were almost unrecognizably different, and there were several new ones added, as well. But it all just worked. There were a number of character and plot updates as well. The most notable of these was the changing of the two main characters from Caucasian to African American, but there were a lot of others, too: having Will Stacks (the Daddy Warbucks character) be running for mayor; replacing Miss Hannigan's dastardly brother, Rooster, with Bobby Cannavale's political consultant; giving Will more overtly humble origins; making Annie a foster child instead of an orphan. From what I've read, some purists have protested the changes, but for me they all added up to a story that felt more organic and plausible, as well as more relevant. At the end of the day, both Juliette and I and our kids thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and it was a great way to close out our cinematic year. (IMDb)
2014 Book Reviews
Here we are at the beginning of a new year, which means it's time for my now-traditional round-up of everything I read and saw during the past one. In terms of quantity, I had a decent reading year: my final count stands at 23. Of those, most were fairly entertaining, a few were a little flat, and a few were quite good. In chronological order:
The Daylight War, by Peter V. Brett. One of the downsides to waiting until now to write these reviews is that it's been almost a year since I finished this book, so most of the details are fairly fuzzy. I read the first book in 2010 and the second in 2012, and mostly what I recall of this installment is that it was fun and worth the wait. One interesting thing about this one was how Brett went back and provided a more detailed backstory for one of the interesting female characters, Inevera, giving her a lot more depth as well as fleshing out her culture a bit more. The next book is due out in March, with the final one expected some time in 2018. So we've got a ways to go, but I'm still interested to keep reading. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Tattered Banner, by Duncan M. Hamilton. I found this one via a Buzzfeed list, which sounds like it wouldn't be a particularly reliable source except that it also included several others that I enjoyed quite a lot. Sadly, I didn't find this one to my liking—the writing felt clunky and the characterization thin. The story follows a young man from a hard-scrabble life in the streets to a chance encounter that gets him into a prestigious fencing academy, and then beyond as he embarks on a career as a soldier and starts to discover some mystical secrets about his past. It seemed like pretty standard high fantasy fare to me. As noted in the Buzzfeed article, there were a lot of sword fights, which I would normally find quite entertaining. In the end, though, I just didn't have a lot of fun reading this book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. If you are a certain type of nerd, born in the mid-to-late 70's who enjoyed Devo and Atari and Zork, this book is written for you. The story is set in a dystopian near future where the real world is mostly gone to hell but everyone spends the bulk of their time in a virtual reality simulation called OASIS. The protagonist is a teenage boy who gets caught up in a quest created by the inventor of OASIS, wherein he has to use his knowledge of esoteric 80's pop culture trivia to solve a bunch of riddles that will give him the keys to the virtual world. Writing that out, it sounds kind of stupid, and in some ways the book is kind of silly. But, as I said, if you're the right kind of nerd, this book will push your buttons. The pop culture references are thick on the ground throughout the book, often to no particular purpose, and neither the prose style nor the story structure are particularly innovative. But it's fast-paced and quite entertaining—I read the whole thing in two days. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Powder Mage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan. This is probably my favorite new fantasy series, in terms of sheer enjoyment. Brian McClellan's debut series combines a whole bunch of things that are right up my alley, some of which I've never seen done before in high fantasy: a pseudo-Napoleonic-era setting; an innovative magic system that, in part, involves "powder mages" who use gunpowder to enhance their strength and speed; a well-developed world history which, of course, comes to bear on the events of the novel; intrigue, war, private investigators, and ancient gods. I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale, which comes out next month. (Promise of Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Crimson Campaign: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I'm not going to lie: this book is a lot of work. When you slip off the case, you're presented with what appears to be a library book from the 50's, called Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. (That author and his works are all fictional.) It's an impressive facsimile, down to the fake library stamps, the old-style binding, and even the way the pages appear to be browning with age. Ship of Theseus is a relatively opaque novel about an unnamed protagonist who finds himself caught up in a socialist revolution that takes him through some apparently Eastern European and South American settings, as well as through time itself.
Ship of Theseus is actually interesting in its own right, reading a bit like a Kundera novel. But the overall story of S. occurs in the margins. Literally. Scribbled into the blank spaces around the edges of the pages are notes between two strangers who pass the book back and forth by leaving it in an out-of-the-way spot in a university library. In that story, a whole shadowy world of international conspiracies, plots, and codes unfolds, as well as the growing relationship between the two scribblers. In this story there are flavors of Borges and Umberto Eco. What makes it difficult is that the notes are not in linear order. As you would expect might happen between two people passing a book back and forth, re-reading it several times in the process, their comments get added whereever appropriate to them at the time they were writing. The book helps you out by presenting the marginalia in different colors, as though the two people were using different pens each time they came back. But it takes some doing to unravel it all.
Ultimately I wasn't completely able to decide whether I thought S. was completely genius or pretentious wankery, or perhaps a little of both. But there was definitely something there, and I think it was worth the time I spent trying to figure it all out. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It's hard to know exactly how to talk about this book without spoiling it, even though the book and movie have been pretty thoroughly discussed everywhere else. What I will say is that I was completely sucked in by this book, and the major turn at the halfway point caught me entirely by surprise. The characterization and use of voice were very skillfully done. I'd say it deserves all of its popularity. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz. A co-worker of mine lent me this book, which is sort of a grown-up Sixth Sense detective story. The title character can see ghosts, whom he helps move on into the afterlife by solving their murders, and so on. It was interesting to me to compare this to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, the other urban fantasy detective series I've read recently, and which started around the same time (Odd Thomas in 2001, The Dresden Files in 2000). This book was more than adequate, but felt smaller in many ways than Butcher's novels. In part, this book feels more like a standalone story as opposed to the Dresden books, which are clearly episodes in a larger series (though, of course, this one is also the first in a series). There was no real connection to a larger, ongoing narrative, which is something I enjoy about Butcher's series. On the other hand, though the story was less grand, that also made it feel a bit more intimate. I'm not sure I'll be rushing to pick up all of the sequels, but I certainly enjoyed this book just fine. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Expanse novellas, by James S. A. Corey. Looking back over my archives, it appears that I've never written a real review for any of James S. A. Corey's Expanse books, which is a shame because they're pretty damn great. The main series is four books long at this point: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War (which, for some reason isn't anywhere in my reading notes), Abaddon's Gate, and Cibola Burn, each of which I read as soon as it came out (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively). (Actually, I read the first two early because one of the authors is a friend of mine, but that's neither here nor there.) The series is a mid-future space opera set at a point where humanity has spread out across the solar system, but as science fiction goes, things are fairly low tech. There's no faster-than-light travel, no laser guns, nothing that's that far outside what we can do now, actually. Several of my friends like to describe it as "mechanics in space." The main series follows the adventures of James Holden and his crew through interplanetary political machinations, war, and even humanity's first contact (by proxy, sort of) with an alien species. It's one of my favorite SF series of the last ten years or so.
In addition to the main series, Mr. Corey (actually a pseudonym for the partnership of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has also (so far) written three novellas set in the same universe, which flesh out the backstories and side stories of some of the supporting characters. None of them are necessary to understand the main series, but they're all fun, and getting the extra dimensions for these characters adds a lot to the experience, particularly—in my opinion—with The Churn. Franck and Abraham started writing these in 2011, but I had let them sit until this past spring, when the waiting for Cibola Burn got to be too much and I had to get a little taste of the Expanse universe. At just a dollar a piece, I more than got my money's worth, and if you're a fan of the series, I can easily recommend these to you. (The Churn: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Butcher of Anderson Station: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. Gods of Risk: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
Growing Up, by Russell Baker. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher assigned us an essay to read by Russell Baker, entitled "No More Orange Motorcycles." It's a piece that's always stuck with me, a wry, funny look at the aging process by way of looking back on the progression of Christmas presents Baker received over his life. The combination of wit, nostalgia, and observation in that essay are something that certainly influenced me early on as a writer.
On a whim, I looked up Baker again this past May, having not read anything of his since that one essay, twenty years ago. I was delighted to find that he had written an autobiography, so I checked it out. As it happens, while the book is the story of Baker's own life, the real stars are three strong women in his life: his grandmother, his mother, and his wife. The book covers his upbringing during the Depression, showing how his mother's grit and determination were largely responsible for his success and character. After I finished it I discovered that Growing Up won the Pulitzer for autobiography in 1983, which came as no surprise. It's funny, insightful, at times poignant, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey. As I mentioned above, this past spring I found myself jonesing for some Expanse stories, since this fourth installment in the main series didn't come out until early June. I finally picked up a copy at a book signing when the authors came to San Diego, and it didn't disappoint. Cibola Burn picks up at a point in the series just after Holden and his crew have unlocked an ancient alien "gateway" that gives access to distant star systems. Humans have rushed through to begin colonizing the new worlds. The first colony is meant to be on a planet called Ilus, but ahead of the official expedition, a group of independent homesteaders have started their own settlement, which predictably leads to friction. Holden and his team are sent in to mediate between the two sides, and along the way uncovers new clues about what happened to the alien civilization that left the gateway.
One of the interesting thing about this series is that each book is conceived of as an intersection of science fiction with another genre. Leviathan Wakes was, in its bones, a noir detective story. Caliban's War was, as the title suggests, a war story. Cibola Burn is a Western: a stranger comes to town to settle a dispute between two factions that represent freedom and order. Based on conversations I've had with friends who've read it, whether this book works for you may depend on how much you enjoy these tropes. Most of the people I know who disliked it specifically mentioned that they tend to be sour on Westerns; I, on the other hand, can't get enough of them. Still, that aside, the engaging characters, tight plotting, good writing, and exciting action I loved from the previous novels is all present in this one. I reckon, though, that if you've made it this far into the series, you're not quitting any time soon. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. I probably wouldn't have been aware of this book if not for the fact that it was turned into a movie. I haven't seen the movie, and based on what I've read I may never do so (though, Neil Gaiman liked it), but I'm glad that I read the book. In that blog post I linked, Gaiman made a reference to John Crowley's Little, Big, which was one of the best books I read in 2012, or, indeed, in any year. There are certainly echoes of Crowley's book in Winter's Tale—both can be described as magical realism, both are set in the United States—but where Little, Big is more of a fairy tale (or, perhaps, faerie tale) in both its story and its writing, Winter's Tale feels more American. Indeed, as much as it is a story about its characters, it is also very much a story about America, and in particular about New York City. In that respect I was reminded very much of Pete Hamill's Forever.
The story is sprawling and epic, following a number of characters over a span of about a hundred years. Among them are Peter Lake, a mechanic and thief in New York near the turn of the 20th century; Beverly Penn, the consumptive daughter of a New York printing magnate, with whom Peter Lake falls in love; and Virginia Gamely, a young woman from the Brigadoon-ish village outside time, Lake of the Coheeries, who comes to the City to make her fortune. So much happens in this book that I couldn't even really summarize it, but suffice it to say that reading it was a profound experience. The prose is lyrical, by turns whimsical and passionate, often dense but packed with emotion. It's a book about family, love, and an America that never existed literally but still lives in the stories of ourselves. It's a story about cities and justice and magic and history. All in all, an amazing book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. It's funny that in the same year I read Ready Player One, the book that would first come to mind when I thought of "fan service" would be this one. To be sure, The Queen of the Tearling had a lot more going for it than just that, but as I read it, I did often get the feeling that Johansen was reaching out to "her people." Which, as one of those people, I both appreciated and felt was a little silly. The titular queen is a young woman named Kelsea who has just ascended to the throne after having been raised in seclusion for her entire life. Knowing nothing about her mother and little about the recent history of her country and its relations with its neighbors, she has a lot to figure out in a hurry, and with little more than heart and good instincts, she starts on her journey toward becoming a legendary leader. That fate is foreshadowed by an interesting framing device: each chapter begins with an excerpt from an in-universe historical text written in the future of the events of the novel. It feels like a debut novel (which it is) in that the writing has both a certain exuberance as well as a few hints of inexperience, a few clunky bits. But overall I found the book entertaining and I'm interested to see where the series goes. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. This being the fifteenth novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, anybody who is in a position to read this book more or less knows what she's in for. So rather than write a lengthy review, I'll just say that I enjoyed this book pretty much exactly as much as I enjoyed all the rest of them, which is to say: a lot. Butcher doesn't seem to be losing any steam, and if and when this series ever does conclude, I'm going to be sad. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's an interesting bit of juxtaposition that the very next book I read after Skin Game was Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Both are the fifteenth installment in a long-running, best-selling series. However, where Jim Butcher's fifteenth Dresden novel is just as entertaining and fast-paced as the other books I love in that series, Bujold's fifteenth Vorkosigan book is pretty flat. I'm hoping this isn't a pattern for the future of the series, because the previous one—2011's CryoBurn—was also kind of disappointing. My complaint about that one was mainly that it felt shoehorned into the series, and didn't really need to include the main character. Unfortunately, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance didn't improve much by mostly leaving out that character. The story follows series protagonist Miles Vorkosigan's errant cousin Ivan Vorpatril as he unwittingly gets caught up in a coup between two Houses of the pseudo-crime-syndicate society of the Jackson's Whole system. Unfortunately that description sounds a lot more exciting that the story actually is; it mainly turns out to be a light romance between Ivan and the "princess" he "rescues." This isn't a particularly new sort of story for Bujold, who has done similar things in her Sharing Knife series and even in some of the earlier Vorkosigan books, notably in 2000's A Civil Campaign. Though, it's worth noting that that last was one of my least favorite books in this series. What I tended to enjoy about this series was the frenetic genius of Miles, the action and intrigue, and the exploration of different societies. There is some of that here, but the Jackson's Whole culture just isn't interesting or alien enough to warrant much interest, and for the most part there isn't much in the way of plot to Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. I'm sure I will pick up the next book whenever it happens to come out, but at this point I mostly hope Bujold finds some new direction to go in. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. Howard Zinn's revisionist history of the US is a pretty famous and influential book at this point, so I'd been meaning to read it for some time. Note that I use the term "revisionist" not in a pejorative sense, but rather to indicate the fact that this book takes a different interpretation of the subject matter than the standard history textbook. Rather than the received wisdom of America being the land of opportunity, he examines the history of women, racial minorities (especially Native Americans and slaves), and the working class in America, revealing the inequities that have been part and parcel of our nation since its inception. For me, though, I'm not sure if it's just because I'd already had a lot of exposure to these ideas in other reading as well as in some of my college coursework, but Zinn's book just didn't give me much new information. Things like the extermination of the Native American nations, the systematic oppression of women and blacks, and the explosive clashes between labor and capital in the early 20th century were already well-known to me. As a comprehensive overview, though, I can't think of any other books that cover it all in a single volume, so if you have an interest in an alternative perspective of American history, you could do a lot worse than A People's History. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. To give you an idea of how much this book worked for me, I'll say this: within the first ten pages, I almost cried twice. As it happened, at exactly that point I was working on pulling together my "All Good Things" and "It Forgets You" photo series for a portfolio review, and those bodies of work deal specifically with the passage of time, ephemerality, home, nostalgia, childhood, parenthood, and family. So The Ocean at the End of the Lane pretty much hit me right where I live.
Gaiman is, of course, a wildly popular figure in contemporary fantasy, albeit a somewhat polarizing one. I have no idea whether a person who normally dislikes his work would like this one any better, but to me it was a near perfect distillation of what works about his writing. Ocean is told as a memory that comes over the narrator as he revisits his childhood home, a memory that he's long forgotten about a dark, mystical episode in his childhood, and the fairy-like family who lived on the farm next door. It's a short little book, one that took me only a few hours to read, but which just crushed me with how well it expressed so many feelings that I'm examining in my own life right now. If there's anything about my photography or my writing that resonates with you, you may very well find the same thing in this book, only better. For me, it was easily the most moving thing I read all year. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Magicians series, by Lev Grossman. So, imagine that you want to write a Harry Potter novel but where the point-of-view character is a wiener and a bit of a douchebag and self-absorbed and casually misogynist in the way nerds so often are—you know, like a real teenaged boy. And then use that as the way into a contemporary Narnia story, but where all of the characters are drawn with the same realism. That's basically what you have with Lev Grossman's Magicians series. It's always an interesting experience reading a story where I dislike the protagonist, and it usually doesn't work well for me. Where it does, either I have to find some other character or characters to root for, or I have to be able to find some core of decency in the main character. What's intriguing to me is the way in which both of those things are present in this series, and yet neither is. As I mentioned, the main character is selfish and whiny and tends to play the victim, vacillating between wanting to be a better person and wallowing in ennui and self-pity. But the book never really lets him off the hook, and though pretty much none of the characters are sympathetic ones, they all have their moments, particularly when calling out the protagonist for his bullshit. I started reading this right in the midst of taking in a lot of new information about patriarchy and misogyny and feminism, so in a lot of ways I ended up questioning whether the world really needed another story about the redemption of a shitty male character—which is ultimately what this ends up being, plotwise—but even so I did really like this series, and if nothing else, it was a fresh take on an old formula. (The Magicians: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician King: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician's Land: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley. The person who recommended me this book describes it like this: "This is the weirdest thing I've read in ages. You should try it. You'll see." I don't think I can do better than that. But, look, if you want to read probably the most innovative epic fantasy I can think of, this would be the one. In the broad outlines, the story isn't so new—invaders from a parallel world threaten to destroy civilization as its known to the protagonists—but the broad outlines are never where innovation happens in genre fiction. What's immediately unusual about this book is the way it sets up a world in which the gender binary is not just rejected, but is not even acknowledged. What makes it both skillful and somewhat opaque is that in the worldbuilding, the author refuses to hold your hand; nothing is explained unless the character would actually need it explained, there are no info dumps and precious little exposition. But what makes it gripping is how utterly brutal the author is to her characters. Look, just go read it. It's really weird. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Tome of the Undergates, by Sam Sykes. I really wanted to like this book, which I bought because its author is highly entertaining on Twitter. It ended up not really being for me, though. The story is a sort of D&D-reminiscent quest where a group of adventurers (this is the word that's used in the book) are hired to retrieve the tome mentioned in the title. And, granting that it's only the first book in a trilogy, the plot still felt meandering and unresolved, and most of the character beats in between the plot and action points felt repetitive and uninteresting to me. I gave it my best shot, but ultimately quit halfway through the second book. A fair number of Goodreads reviewers had almost exactly the opposite impression of me, particularly appreciating both the plot and characterization, so your mileage may vary. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
In 2013 I read the most books of any year since I started keeping a reading log (39); I saw about the same number of movies as I have every year since Jason was born (8); and I wrote fewer reviews than I have in this history of this blog (2). By now, I'm past pretending that there will ever be a regular review column here anymore, but I nevertheless find it somewhat comforting to take time now and then to reflect on the stories and pop culture I've taken in. Thus, here are a few impressions of the previously unreviewed movies and books from 2013:
The Engineer Trilogy, by K. J. Parker: A number of people whose opinions I respect spoke highly of K. J. Parker's work in general, and of this series in particular, so I was excited to finally check it out. But although I do agree that Parker's writing was excellent, I nevertheless found this story quite unenjoyable. As I put it to a friend when I was midway through the second book, "If I am not interested in any of the characters, why should I care about anything they do? If I don't care about any of the characters or anything they do, what is left to care about in a narrative story?"
Abbaddon's Gate, by James S. A. Corey: I have really enjoyed seeing how this series has progressed from its pre-publication roots to this latest installment, and I'm really looking forward to the next one. In terms of balancing entertainment and literary value, this was probably the best thing I read all year.
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: I started reading this series in middle school, and gave up on it in college, at which point it was still only about two-thirds finished. Coming back to it as an adult was interesting--on the one hand revisiting the places and characters I had loved as a kid was very nostalgic, even comforting. On the other hand, the poor writing was much harder to look past. Still, it was nice to finally get some closure on it.
The Gentleman Bastards series, by Scott Lynch: I don't think I would ever have thought to put a series of caper stories into a high fantasy setting, but the results were highly entertaining. I'm very much looking forward to where this series goes next.
Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson: Sanderson has been kind of hit-or-miss for me, but I think that the fact that this story is explicitly for a YA audience makes it work a lot better for me than some of his previous work.
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: I used to go back and re-read this along with The Hobbit every year, so this was probably the tenth or so time I've read it. It's been quite a while since the last time--almost a decade--but it remains one of my favorites.
The Dresden Files, books 7-14, by Jim Butcher: I read these eight books in two weeks, and the only reason I stopped there is because the next one hasn't been released yet. Loads of fun.
Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik: I'm not sure that Novik's worldbuilding has been very consistent across this entire series, but nonetheless her stories are pretty entertaining. I'm in for the long haul on this series.
Quartet: This was a small and, as far as I know, fairly unknown movie, but for all that I think it was probably my favorite of the year. A really lovely story about aging and music.
Admission: Going into this one, I expected it to be boring, predictable, and mostly unfunny with a sprinkling of excruciating awkwardness. And although that turned out to be more or less correct, getting to have dinner and a movie with Juliette is always nice.
Star Trek Into Darkness: After this one ended Juliette asked me if I liked it, and my response to her was that it wasn't really a Star Trek movie but, all the same, I still enjoyed the heck out of it. I'm not sure it will hold up to repeat viewings, but the writers knew just how to hit me, a lifelong fan, where I live.
Monsters University: I ended up liking this one much more than I thought I would. I still don't know that it was really necessary--few sequels and even fewer prequels are--but it had its moments, for sure.
Planes: It's funny how a completely mediocre and forgettable movie can be made so much better by seeing it with your five-year-old son.
12 Years a Slave: This movie was brilliantly acted, beautifully filmed, and near perfectly executed. It is an important film, one that has been and will continue to be rightly showered with awards. I think I may be a better person for having seen it. And I never, ever want to see it again.
Anchorman 2: There was simply no way that this movie could ever have the impact or quotability of the original, but despite the fact that it recycled a bit too much from the first one, I still laughed my ass off quite a few times.
I read the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series last spring, and as I noted in my very brief review it was a lot of fun. As regular readers of this site will know, I have soft spots for both fantasy and Napoleonic-era British historical fiction, so the combination of the two would be right up my alley--indeed, I can only think of one other book that falls into both categories, and I gave it a positive review, too. In any event, I'd been meaning to return to Novik's series, so after Christmas when I had some spare cash, I picked up the second and third books. I liked those so much that I went ahead and bought the remaining four, and tore through all six in just over three weeks.
The series imagines an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are real, and the major world powers all have aerial corps made up of dragons and their aviator crews. It is, I suppose, sort of a silly concept, but it's an extraordinarily entertaining one, too. Over the course of the seven books, we follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his dragon companion, Temeraire, through war, diplomacy, intrigue, and exploration across five continents and even more cultures. There's action, of course, and the old-fashioned style was spot-on for me. But more than that, I found myself quite drawn in by the ways in which Novik explored the different facets of how life and history would be different if there were a second sentient species, and I found her alternate universe to be interesting and well-realized.
It's not serious or weighty "literature," but I found the Temeraire series thoroughly enjoyable, and if a light, fantastic adventure is your idea of a good time, I recommend it.
I don't know how the cool kids feel about Les Mis these days, whether they hate it for being too schlocky and mainstream or whether they love it because it's kind of cool to hate it. No matter; it's a rare occasion that I'm accused of being cool.
I've seen two stage productions of Les Misérables: an abridged school production when I was in high school, and a traveling production at LA's Ahmanson Theater when I was in college. I've also listened to the 10th Anniversary concert album about a hundred times. I know the songs so well that I used to pass the time in the filing room by singing the entire thing to myself, back when I had a summer job at a title company.
So, you know, I guess I'm a little biased.
Here's the thing: I know that Les Misérables is melodramatic and overwrought. I know that the music is sentimental as all get-out, and that the lyrics are often clumsy. I can't help it, though--I still get a lump in my throat when I hear Fantine singing about the dream she dreamed.
I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this movie. On the one hand, as I've mentioned, I do enjoy this musical and I was intrigued by the trailer, which showcased the way they recorded the actors' vocals in scene, rather than having them lip-sync. On the other hand, I wasn't sure about some of the casting, especially Russell Crowe as Javert--sure, I respect him enough as an actor to know that he could do something with the part in a non-musical, but here he'd have to sing. It had also been over a decade since I last saw the play performed, and I wasn't sure if my opinion might have changed as I aged.
As it happens, many of my concerns were borne out, but I still enjoyed this movie.
Some of the vocal performances were, indeed, a bit heavy-handed. Russell Crowe, in particular, had a near total lack of nuance to his singing, with every number sounding thin and boring in the same way. I was reminded a bit of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!--oddly, both movies had Amanda Seyfried in the ingenue role. Seyfried, herself, was a bit uneven--her pitch was fine, and actually her soprano range was quite impressive, but there was an odd warble to her singing that made me think of the Disney Snow White--something that I don't recall coming out when she was singing a bit lower in Mamma Mia!--and she, too, didn't have quite the emotional range that I would have liked. Samantha Barks' Éponine was OK if a little overwrought, but then I imagine most anyone would have a hard time living up to Lea Salonga, so I'll give her a pass.
Still, one thing that film gave this production that the stage can have trouble delivering was the opportunity for softness. On stage, even with mikes, actors tend to have to project out to the last row, but on camera they can be a little more subtle. Hugh Jackman was a bit hit-or-miss, but when he was good he was very good; I wished for less belting in "Bring Him Home," but thought he brought something pretty special to "Who Am I?" and "Valjean's Soliloquy." Eddie Redmayne's performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was as good as any I've heard, maybe better. Even some of the minor roles found some interesting ways to play their parts--the foreman in "At the End of the Day" was refreshingly devoid of bluster while managing to be exactly as sleazy as he needed to be. And it was a nice surprise to see Colm Wilkinson--who played Valjean in the original London and Broadway productions--show up as the Bishop.
But the real star--and surprise--for me was Anne Hathaway. I knew that Hathaway is a capable actress, having seen her tackle some complex roles in Brokeback Mountain and Rachel Getting Married. And I knew she could sing from things like Rio and the Oscars. But it was that last one that made me wonder whether she could do both at the same time, since her performance as Oscar host was needy and quite the opposite of subtle. So I was quite impressed with how dynamic she made her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream," despite the fact that most of that number was filmed with a static camera, up close, in one long shot. (A lot of the big numbers were filmed that way, which I imagine was largely due to the fact that they were recording the vocals live--most likely that meant that everything had to be done in one take. That puts a lot of pressure on the actor to make it interesting.) She really nailed it; I got choked up.
The non-vocal parts of the production suffered from the same unevenness. The camera work was at times odd and distracting, with odd angles and weird cuts--or lack thereof. As I mentioned, the long shots were very demanding for the actors, not all of whom lived up to the challenge. But at the same time, I also felt that cinematographically, a lot of the movie was quite beautiful, especially the close-ups--if those shots had been stills, they'd have made some really interesting portraits.
There were also a number of changes to the songs, some of which were very strange. I understand that in order to fit the entire musical into a film of reasonable length--and at 2 hours and 37 minutes, this one was pushing it--some cuts were going to have to be made. But why add a whole new song, then? And why cut out just certain parts of some of the duets? Leaving Javert to sing parts of "The Confrontation" alone, for example, when Crowe could only have been helped by having Jackman take some of the focus off his weak voice. Director Tom Hooper made some choices that just felt weird to me, but perhaps I'm nitpicking.
This isn't a perfect film, and most likely isn't the best version of Les Misérables ever produced, but there were enough things done right that I feel comfortable giving it a good recommendation to anyone who enjoys musicals.
Viewed: 1/1/2013 | Released: 12/25/2012 | Score: B-
If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
I estimate that I've seen each of the Toy Story movies at least fifteen times over the past four years. Those being Jason's most enduringly favorite movies over his life, that's no surprise, but in fact I've seen most of the Pixar features multiple times. Cars probably ten times, Cars 2 three or four, Finding Nemo seven or eight, A Bug's Life three, Up nine or ten. The one exception has been Wall-E, which I've seen exactly once, only because we don't own it. And now, of course, Brave.
I mention all of this because many of Pixar's movies hold up quite well to repeated viewings, even over a relatively short span of time. Some are better than others, but so far the only one that I find really grates on me is Cars 2, and, thankfully, Jason doesn't ask for that one often. By and large, though, I'm able to keep coming back to these movies and still enjoy them.
With that in mind, I'm curious to know how well Brave will fare after the fifth or tenth time I've seen it--as I'm sure Jason will insist on getting it as soon as the Blu-Ray comes out.
Now, overall I have to admit that I liked this movie quite a bit. As I've come to expect from Pixar, the animation and voice acting were superb, the comedy was well done, and there were moments of genuine emotion, especially near the climax. And while I agree with some of the critics who've wished that the filmmakers had done more to create a more feminist story (which is to say: one without princesses), I think that it's clear that the writers and directors were at least trying to break out of the typical family movie mold, and I think they deserve credit for that. It's been said before, but the fact that this company is so consistently able to churn out such high quality work is nothing short of astonishing.
Still, one of the things that struck me as I left the movie was how straightforward and simple the plot was. Unlike some recent favorites like Up and Toy Story 3, I never really felt very surprised by anything that happened, and if not for the fact that the voice acting was so good and the relationships so well realized, Brave might not have had much emotional impact for me.
Of course, throwing out an "if not for" like that sort of trivializes just how good those aspects were. Billy Connolly's distinctive voice has always been one of my favorites, and I don't think I've ever seen Emma Thompson not do well in a movie. And I've been a fan of Kelly Macdonald since No Country For Old Men made me go back and revisit her earlier work, so it was quite gratifying to hear her adding her talents to this movie as well.
And then there's all the rest: the wonderfully atmospheric setting, the comedy, the animation managing to be highly expressive with surprisingly few words, the characterization. There's a lot to admire about Brave.
So the question is, will all of that good stuff be enough to keep me coming back despite the sort of weak main plot? I think it most likely will, since after the twentieth viewing it's really the characters that hold my interest. Only time will tell, though.
Viewed: 6/29/2012 | Released: 6/22/2012 | Score: B+