April Review Round-up
The Autumn Republic, by Brian McClellan: In the round-up I wrote on my 2014 reading list, I said about Brian McClellan’s then-unfinished Powder Mage Trilogy, “I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale …” As it happened, I ended up buying the last chapter just as promptly as I did the middle, and read through it as voraciously as I did the first. The Autumn Republic delivers in every way I would have wanted: action, intrigue, epic scale, old gods, and new regimes. A very satisfying ending to a highly entertaining series. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Birdman: In her Oscars round-up post back in February, NPR’s Linda Holmes had this comment about Birdman:
Birdman is an offbeat film in many ways and has real visual inventiveness, but it also has hugely familiar themes: the lone struggling genius misunderstood by the world, yelling at his daughter about social media and defending the importance of real art. (IMDb)
The thing is, I’m not sure Birdman is that movie. I mean, it might be. Certainly the main character, Riggan Thomson—played by Michael Keaton—would describe himself as a lone struggling genius, and his story as one of defending art. But then, the film also goes to great lengths to show Riggan’s insecurity and ego, and ultimately his patheticness. When his daughter (Emma Stone) verbally takes him apart, shouting that he is irrelevant, so get used to it, she’s completely right.
So, which is it? Does Birdman praise the independent artist or skewer a self-important blowhard? It swings back and forth between the two, and the famously strange ending doesn’t really help resolve the question. I think, in the end, it’s going to be whatever you want it to be, and so while I found it interesting, I can’t say I really loved it.
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss: Long-time readers may have picked up on the fact that I have a lot of anxiety about my eventual death. So the fact that the opening chapter of this book describes the daily routine of an old, lonely man who is basically waiting around to die very nearly put me into a panic attack. I had to put the book down for a few days and come back once I’d calmed down. I’m glad I did come back, though.
The History of Love is the name of a book that the old man, Leo Gursky, wrote when he was young. It is also the name of a book written by a Polish emigrant to Argentina named Zvi Litvinoff. It is also the name of a book, the main character of which provides the namesake of a girl named Alma. Throughout The History of Love, we follow these three viewpoints—Leo, Litvinoff, and Alma—as their stories unfold and eventually converge.
The Litvinoff sections read like something out of Borges or Kundera. The Alma sections reminded me a bit of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—in feel if not in the details—or perhaps some of John Irving’s teenage longing. It is, as the title suggests, about love. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the human desire for connection, the ways that we try so hard to know the people near us, and the ways that they nevertheless remain a mystery to us. It’s a beautifully written, very affecting novel, and although it was at times difficult for me to read, I highly recommend it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi: I’ve been reading military SF since middle school, and though my tastes have broadened a lot since then, I still find myself coming back to the genre. It’s just so much fun. This one, John Scalzi’s first novel (published back in 2005), is energetic and entertaining, just like I’d want from a space war story. It does hew a bit close to Starship Troopers structurally, but trades the semi-Randian political philosophy for a sardonic sense of humor and a lot more sex. It’s a quick read—I finished the whole thing in a day—and after finishing The History of Love it was exactly what I needed. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham: One of the things that Daniel Abraham does really well is write characters who are flawed—sometimes deeply so—but still somehow relatable. The central characters of this series are a young woman who is a brilliant banker with scrappy, underdog beginnings and also a certain lack of empathy or self-awareness and a tendency to drink too much; a mercenary captain who is highly skilled but tends only to thrive when he’s at his worst; and a bookish young nobleman who turns out to be a self-deluding monster. Each of them—as well as a few others—get time as the viewpoint characters, and because we see things from their perspective, there’s a natural tendency for each to become sympathetic. Especially in the latter case, that winds up being seductive but misleading; the guy really is a terrible person.
Another thing that Abraham does well is find new ways to come at existing genres. In The Long Price Quartet that meant coming up with a very novel magic system and a setting that wasn’t a stand-in for medieval Europe. In The Expanse series, that means incorporating tropes from a different second genre into the overall science fictional arc with each new book. And in this series, it means taking all of the hallmarks of traditional epic fantasy and entwining it with a highly nonstandard motive force: money and banking. Abraham has said before that a big part of the origin of this series came from his research into Renaissance banking practices, and it makes for a pretty interesting take on a kind of story that’s been around for quite some time. The first four volumes of this series are well-paced, interesting, and populated with great characters, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens in the fifth. (The Dragon’s Path: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The King’s Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Tyrant’s Law: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Widow’s House: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett: Man, this was a good book. I’m not sure how to describe it in a way that makes sense, though. It’s a fantasy novel, but set in a world that’s roughly technologically equivalent to the 1920’s. This is a world where the gods were real, and their power allowed one nation to enslave the entire world. But it’s also a world where the gods were vulnerable, and were killed in a slave uprising that overthrew the existing order, and whose deaths caused a cataclysm that reshaped an entire continent. But all of this is backstory.
Yes, it is a fantasy novel. But in its plot, City of Stairs is really more of a cloak-and-dagger thriller. In the aftermath of the uprising and war I mentioned before, the former slaves have come to rule their former masters, burying the old oppressors’ attempts to rebuild their civilization under a mountain of bureaucracy. Eighty years later, a visiting professor who is investigating the history of the Divine and their old empire winds up dead under questionable circumstances, and a woman—an operative—named Shara arrives to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more huge the conspiracies become.
City of Stairs features amazing world-building, wonderful characters, and not a little commentary on the nature of politics and nations and power, but all of that is done so skillfully and naturally that it never feels forced or heavy-handed. If you like contemporary fantasy, I can’t recommend this book any more highly. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
A Few Quick-Hit Reviews
The Book of Life: I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of other cultures in American film and television lately, so the idea of a kid’s movie centering around Mexican folklore, which was written, directed, and produced by Mexicans, seemed intriguing. I honestly have no idea how good a job it does at representing Mexican stories, being neither Mexican, myself, nor an expert in Mexican traditional or modern culture. What I can say is that the animation style was both beautiful and (I thought) innovative, with the character design cleverly echoing the narrative structure—the main plot is presented as a story-in-story, and the characters in that plot look like wooden dolls. Moreover, it was a fun, light movie that both my kids and I enjoyed. (IMDb)
Paddington: At the risk of damning with faint praise, I have to say that this movie was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Like many parents with young children, Juliette and I will often take any excuse to be able to go to the movies with our kids—hence why I found myself at Walking With Dinosaurs 3D last year. The trailers for Paddington didn’t leave me feeling very confident that I’d get more out of the experience than having an opportunity to eat popcorn with my kids, but despite the somewhat off-putting animation of the title character, I actually thought this movie had its charms. Maybe I’m just a sucker for English accents. (IMDb)
Guardians of the Galaxy: By the time I had finally gotten around to seeing this movie, the conversation around it has gone through a pretty remarkable cycle. At first it seemed like everyone expected it to be terrible, then it became a surprise hit. By the end of the summer, people were holding it up as an example of a new wave of American cinema, holding it up as an example of the greatness underlying a form of pop culture previously seen as a guilty pleasure at best. But by the time the awards season had started, everyone had backed off a bit, ultimately deciding it was a lot of fun but probably didn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination. For me, it was neither more nor less than I expected. Everything people loved about it—Chris Pratt, the soundtrack, the action sequences, the sense of humor—I loved about it. Everything people thought was a little over the top, well, I agreed with that as well. All in all, a fun action movie that probably won’t end up changing the world. (IMDb)
My parents divorced when I was two. Afterwards, my brother and I lived with my mom, visiting our dad every other weekend. When I was six, we moved into a small cabin in a Big Sur Canyon, where my mom’s boyfriend lived. We stayed there for about a year, until my mom couldn’t stand his mood swings and drinking and the fact that he spanked me and my brother. We never lived with him again, though they were on again and off again for the next few years. Eventually, we settled in the house that I think of as “where I grew up,” and she married my stepdad.
As a younger man I harbored dreams of becoming a writer, which, to me, meant writing novels. But though I’ve worked my way into being a decent essayist, I’ve found that fiction is beyond me—as with my photographs, my strength is in observation, not construction. I know now that the only story I could ever really tell is my own, and writers who write only about themselves have long struck me as tiresome navel-gazers.
But then there is Richard Linklater, and Boyhood.
I’m sure that by now you all know about this movie. The thing that everyone is talking about is the remarkable length of the production, Linklater having brought the same cast together every year for twelve years in order to allow us to watch them grow and age. To be sure, that’s an impressive logistical feat, and it allows for a level of verisimilitude that I’ve never seen before in a movie. But what makes Boyhood the breathtaking experience that it is isn’t the fact that it took so long to make. No, the special thing about this film is how it presents a life in a way that is undramatic, yet intimate and resonant. Watching it, I felt like I could have been watching my own childhood. It makes sense, considering that Linklater drew from his own youth in writing Boyhood.
It’s more than just a portrait of a young man, though. Because in it I also recognized pieces of myself as a parent, and pieces of my own parents. One of the things that is so strange about growing up and having kids of your own is the way it makes you re-evaluate your memories of the people who raised you, to see them as people who were muddling through as best they could, the same way you are now. I watched this movie and couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for my mom to have two young sons on her own, or what it must have been like for my dad to only get to see us for two days out of fourteen.
I wondered, in one of my recent movie reviews, whether there were any interesting stories left to tell about men. Boyhood showed me that a story well-written, a story with emotional weight, told with insight and quiet confidence, can make a familiar story fresh and vital. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.
Viewed: 2/6/2015 | Released: 8/15/2014 | Score: A
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Thinking about this movie, it really feels like it’s got just about everything you’d come up with if you were making an awards checklist. Beautiful food? Check. Award-winning female lead? Check. Danceable, Bollywood-style music behind a “we can do it” montage? Check. “Quirky,” ethnic side characters? Check. A rags-to-riches story about a lone genius who has to overcome the odds? Check. The Hundred-Foot Journey really seems like a bat upside the head of potential Academy voters. And, like a lot of awards-bait movies, it never rises above the level of feel-good schlock.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens with a young Indian man named Hassan (Manish Dayal) telling his backstory to a European immigrations officer. After his family’s home and restaurant in India are destroyed during a political upheaval, they have come to the Continent (after a short stint in England) to try to make a new life. They are grudgingly admitted, and when their brakes serendipitously fail just outside of a small, picturesque French town, they decide to start again there. Unfortunately, the building they buy for their restaurant is just across the street from a Michelin-starred French restaurant, run by the aloof, driven Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). A rivalry ensues, during which the culinary genius of young Hassan is revealed.
The story of a young genius’s rise from poverty to fame is pretty standard fare, and there just isn’t much in this version to elevate it into something interesting. Om Puri gives a fine performance as Hassan’s father, and, as I mentioned, the food is beautiful. Helen Mirren was good in her performance, although I did find myself wishing they’d hired someone more convincingly French—accents are far from the be-all, end-all of good acting, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to accept a performance as real when the accent is wrong.
Mostly, though, it was just trite. The most interesting female character and performance was, in my opinion, Charlotte Le Bon as Marguerite, but while she starts out as both a friend and mentor to Hassan, she winds up being nearly dropped by the film once Hassan’s ascent begins. It’s so predictable and disappointing, having a woman be presented as interesting but ultimately only be used to prop up the leading man.
It’s not a terrible movie, but, for me, The Hundred-Foot Journey ends up being conventional and treacly. And as can happen with things that are overly sweet, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
Viewed: 1/30/2015 | Released: 8/8/2014 | Score: C-
This Is Where I Leave You
I’m told that the novel this movie was based on is hilarious. I took the liberty of looking up the 2009 New York Times review, in which critic Janet Maslin called it “smartly comic.” Some of that carries over to the film adaptation, but mostly when I was watching it, I kept thinking “This would be better as a book.”
This Is Where I Leave You is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to being good, but ultimately winds up just being OK. The bulk of the story deals with the four Altman siblings—Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), and Phillip (Adam Driver)—as they return home in the wake of their father’s death. Now, you look at a cast like that, which is rounded out by the addition of Jane Fonda as the mother of the family, and Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepherd, and Rose Byrne in supporting roles, and give them a premise like that, and what you’d imagine—what I’d imagine, at least—is a witty, heartfelt, observant ensemble movie. And at times that’s exactly what This Is Where I Leave You feels like, but it can’t hold onto it.
I think the main problem has to do with the fact that, rather than being truly an ensemble piece, the movie begins with Jason Bateman’s character, Judd, and follows his thread the most closely throughout. As the film opens, Judd appears to be a successful radio producer with a good life, but that gets upended when he walks in on his wife having sex with his boss. That this is shortly followed by the news that his father has died seems a bit piled on, but perhaps not unworkably so. No, the problem for me is that I’ve just seen too many movies about sad dudes who have to overcome some personal or emotional obstacle, mostly with the help of some Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That kind of story felt fresh when I was 25. At 35, I want to see something different. (At one point while watching this movie, I wondered aloud whether there were even any interesting stories left to tell about men. Perhaps that’s taking things a bit far, but certainly the shine has come off of this particular story.)
Still, if the main plotline fell flat for me, This Is Where I Leave You does get some things right, mainly in its portrayal of the Altmans as a family. There are little sprinkles of insight and realness here and there, bits of amicable dysfunction and the closeness that can only come from a shared history, which rang true to me. There are ways that, for many of us, family brings out both the best and worst of ourselves, and this movie understands that, and shows it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or heavy-handed. Or, rather, it doesn’t feel any more heavy-handed than real families can be.
Still, those moments of connection only serve to make me all the more frustrated that the whole thing is so mediocre. And that’s especially true given the collective talent of the cast. I can’t say that this is really a bad movie, but it’s not one that I’m going to be coming back to often.
Viewed: 1/17/2015 | Released: 9/19/2014 | Score: C+
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-
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)
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 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-