Monthly Archives

December 2015

An INSIDE OUT Christmas

This past weekend I attended my friend Mari’s annual holiday theme party. Long-time PCN readers might remember her incredible Harry Potter party and the Dr. Seuss one, among others. This year’s theme was:

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In case you don’t recognize it, that’s Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, with characters representing emotions inside the head of a little girl named Riley. When the movie came out in June, Mr. PCN and I had seen it with Mari and her children—which include a girl named Riley.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted with this banner as we stepped through the window into Riley’s mind.

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Inside was this brilliant table:

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Notice the “memories” on the walls.

 

The hors d’oeuvres and snacks area:

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Here’s the live version of, from left, Anger, Sadness, Disgust (in front of Sadness), Joy (Mari), and Fear.

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The one in front on the ground? That’s my friend Christian as the lovesick volcano from the short film Lava, which played before Inside Out in theaters. Christian trounced us all for best costume. You can see more of his volcanic splendor in the group shot below.

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Hope your holidays glow brightly and bring you much joy. (To see more of Mari’s feasts for the eyes, visit her site.)

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Mini Movie Reviews: More Based-on-True-Events Fare

As I mentioned in a previous post, many of this year’s award contenders are about real people and based on real events. After reviewing Trumbo, Steve Jobs, and The Danish Girl, here are my thoughts on the next batch of supposedly true stories.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book-award winner of the same title, this recounts the ordeals of the ship Essex and her crew in 1820 after the ship was demolished by a sperm whale. The crew drifted for over 90 days in separate boats, fighting (unsuccessfully for some) hunger, thirst, and nature before being rescued. The incident, and accounts by survivors, apparently inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The situations are harrowing for sure, but like many Ron Howard-directed films, Heart of the Sea veers toward sentimentalism toward the end. I prefer what Brooklyn‘s director, John Crowley, does—move audiences without being sentimental.

Chris Hemsworth solidifies his status as the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a big, strong dude who can act; Tom Holland continues to make me feel really bad for his unfortunate characters in water-logged tragedies (check him out in The Impossible; he’s also the new Spider-Man and will hopefully stay dry); and Brendan Gleeson is affecting as a traumatized man, though it’s ridiculous that the filmmakers want us to buy the 60-year-old actor as a 45-year-old.

 

Bridge of Spies

bridgeofspies

DreamWorks

This Steven Spielberg-directed espionage thriller is solid entertainment and much better than you might think it is. That was my reaction, and I’ve heard a couple of other people say the same, probably because a movie more than two hours long about the Cold War and Russian spies sounds dense and dry. It’s actually suspenseful, well-paced, and has a definite supporting actor contender in Mark Rylance. Rylance remains still and quiet throughout the movie, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface.

Tom Hanks plays a lawyer named James Donovan who becomes the second most hated man in America as the defense lawyer for Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel, an accused Soviet spy. I don’t want to give away too much about the fascinating chess moves that occur, but Donovan ends up being recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of an American spy held captive in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about the real-life Donovan and the results of his actions, so the ensuing events had me riveted.

The script, by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, contains thought-provoking dialogue. When a CIA agent pressures Donovan to betray his client’s confidentiality, arguing that Abel is a foreigner and “there’s no rule book” that applies to him, Donovan points out that he himself is of Irish descent, the agent has German roots, and therefore following “the rule book” is the only thing that defines them as Americans.

 

Joy

joy

Fox 2000

Teaming up yet again with director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and many more items. Joy goes from being a kid with bright ideas to a broke single mother with no business experience, then transforms into an entrepreneur and head of a multimillion-dollar empire.

The movie has an uneven tone and odd dream-like sequences; I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks showed up. Can’t fault the acting, though. As with anything she does, Lawrence is immensely watchable. She’s too young to play Mangano (the real Mangano was about 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop; Lawrence is 25), but she does convincingly traverse the character arc from novice to shrewd businesswoman.

The supporting cast is fine, with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad, Bradley Cooper as a QVC exec who gives Joy her first big break, and Diane Ladd as Joy’s grandmother. Unlike with the last three Russell movies, however, I don’t think any of the supporting players will get nominations.

While I have no beef with Elisabeth Röhm as a performer, I wonder why Russell keeps having the fair German-born actress portray Italian (or at least half Italian) characters. Yes, Italians can be fair, and in American Hustle Röhm wasn’t too jarring as Dolly Polito, but here, as Joy’s half sister, she’s distracting in olive face. I kept thinking there are qualified actresses of Italian descent—e.g. Jennifer Esposito, Drea de Matteo—who could’ve played the sister without having to darken their skin.

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Nerdy Special List Year-End Edition

Instead of a December list, I thought I’d post a list featuring outstanding books from any month this year, titles that weren’t on previous lists because we didn’t read them before pub date or whatever other reason. This isn’t a best-of or top-ten list, just a roundup of additional 2015 books we found special. Maybe one or four will end up on your Christmas list!

From Jen’s Book Thoughts:

bassoon-kingThe Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson (Dutton)

Actor Rainn Wilson’s memoir is smart, funny, and inspirational. I listened to the audiobook, which Wilson narrates himself, and it will be my favorite audiobook of the year. He offers up an honest look at his rise to The Office fame, with all the bumps, bruises and laughs, including a stint playing the bassoon in his high school band.

Wilson is a wiz with words, crafting brilliant phrases like “drama geeks as the lions of the dork Serengeti.” He also shares his views on his religion, Bahá’í, and of course has plenty to say about The Office. But you don’t need to be a fan of the sitcom to appreciate this fantastic book.

If you’re an audiobook fan, opt to listen to this one because Wilson’s performance adds an extra layer of goodness to an already enjoyable read.

gates-of-evangelineThe Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young (Putnam)

This atmospheric debut novel follows a 38-year-old woman to Louisiana where she’s writing a book about the prominent Deveau family and the still unsolved 30-year-old kidnapping of the youngest Deveau, Gabriel.

The novel contains a hint of mysticism and a wallop of great characters, all wrapped in themes of love, faith, and devotion. Hester Young creates a rich Southern Gothic setting in the old plantation on a Louisiana bayou, and the plot is masterfully constructed with red herrings and twists up to the very end.

An amazing first novel. I’m looking forward to more from this talented writer. (Read Jen’s full review here.)

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

the shoreThe Shore by Sara Taylor (Hogarth)

The Shore is Sara Taylor’s debut novel. Set just off the coast of Virginia, there are a group of small islands in the Chesapeake Bay known as “the Shore.” Inhabited by rich and poor alike, the Shore is the place that binds everyone together.

The story is bleak, filled with abuse, addiction, and tragedy, but beautifully written. Although it’s considered a novel, each chapter has the feel of a short story. The characters are complex and distinct, and they illustrate how you can love and hate the place you call home.

It’s worth warning potential readers, especially based on the misleading cover, this novel is unremittingly harsh. It’s grim, it’s tough, it’s unexpected, but it is so worth the effort to get through.

bull mountainBull Mountain by Brian Panowich (Putnam)

Allowing I didn’t intentionally set out to recommend two debuts, I’m happy it worked out that way. Bull Mountain is Brian Panowich’s brilliant first novel. Set in the backwoods of northern Georgia, this is southern grit-lit at its finest.

The novel tells the saga of the Burroughs family and its transition from selling moonshine to marijuana and eventually meth. It centers on brothers Halford and Clayton. Halford is the head of the Burroughs empire, while Clayton is the outcast and the sheriff of the county. The two form an uneasy truce that lasts until Special Agent Simon Holly arrives. After that, nothing is the same.

This novel is tense and deeply satisfying, truly a page turner (a phrase I never use, but it’s apt here). If a sweeping southern tale of crime, vengeance, and loyalty sounds appealing, pick up this book immediately.


From Erin at In Real Life:

child gardenThe Child Garden by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)

With each of her novels, Catriona McPherson lays bare Scotland’s dark underbelly, and long may she continue to do so (tourism board be damned!).

In The Child Garden, we meet Gloria Harkness, a good (no, really) woman who is doing the best she can in difficult circumstances. Her good nature leads her into the heart of a dark mystery, though, fraught with complications and evil presences.

 

taking pityTaking Pity by David Mark (Blue Rider Press)

Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy is a good guy in the midst of a terrible run of events. His house is gone and his wife and daughter are in hiding. All he needs is…a good case. Or maybe not, but that’s what he gets.

A rural murder in the picturesque English countryside is much more than it appears when McAvoy starts digging, and the result is a story worthy of the McBain comparisons it has drawn.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

61XH0FJVXVLSmaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan (Soho)

I was blown away by F.H. Batacan’s brilliant Smaller and Smaller Circles, winner of multiple awards in the Philippines and published in the US for the first time in August.

The story is set in 1977 Manila, a city rife with poverty, corrupt officials, and lazy law enforcement. When the mutilated bodies of at-risk boys begin showing up in the dump, Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Gus Saenz is asked by the director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help with the case.

Father Gus, along with his former student and mentee Father Jerome Lucero, now a psychologist, throw themselves into the case with their hearts and heads. Of course, not everyone cares that boys on society’s fringes are being victimized. Not everyone likes Father Gus and his meddling ways.

In Batacan’s hands, these normal elements of crime fiction don’t feel like retreads. Everything fits, the plot and characters are all drawn so well the whole feels very, very real indeed. I was amazed how quickly Father Gus and Father Jerome became a duo I was wholly invested in and would crave more from. Batacan let me know her characters in the most intimate way—by shining a light on their souls through their words and actions.

I loved feeling so powerless to avoid getting caught up in these characters and their plights. I highly recommend this one, which does include some difficult material, but handled appropriately and not for shock value. (Read Lauren’s full review here.)

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

ruined abbeyRuined Abbey by Anne Emery (ECW Press)

This book takes place in 1989, during the Irish “Troubles.” Several members of Father Brennan Burke’s family end up in jail for various reasons. He and his siblings try to get to the main source of their problems, and figure out where everyone fits into the bigger picture.

Ruined Abbey is very interesting, partially because I didn’t know anything about the time period in Ireland or Britain. Highly recommended.

 

dead to meDead to Me by Mary McCoy (Disney-Hyperion)

I did not know this book was a young adult book when I started it, even though the main character is 16. Alice investigates the brutal beating of her older sister, who lies in a coma. The story and the noir atmosphere more than hold up as both a YA and adult mystery.

Goodreads calls it “L. A. Confidential for young adults.” Highly recommended.

From PCN:

little black liesLittle Black Lies by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur)

I’d been going through a bad reading slump when this book arrived and saved me. Many months after I read it, it still haunts me.

Set in the Falkland Islands, the story is told from three main points of view: Catrin, a mother still grieving the death of her two young sons; Rachel, Catrin’s former best friend who may have been (accidentally) involved in the boys’ deaths; and Callum, Catrin’s ex-lover and ex-soldier in the Falklands War.

Little boys are going missing on the islands, and Catrin doesn’t think the disappearances are unrelated. Delving into the mystery, though, only brings back devastating memories of her own lost boys. Her grief is raw and palpable when we see her internal life, but to others she can seem stoic and unsentimental so her sorrow isn’t overwhelming.

Rachel and Callum struggle with their own demons, and the three characters collide in a climax that’s almost O. Henry-ish. If you need a slump buster, you can’t go wrong with this book.

 

And this concludes our final Nerdy Special List of the year. I’d like to thank all the smart, good-looking, well-dressed contributors for expanding my reading universe with their recommendations every month. Hope you all have enjoyed the lists as much as I have. (For previous NSLs, click here.)

Which books were special for you this year?

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Gift Book Reviews: Ghostbusters and Hollywood Fashion

Many of us have probably already started Christmas shopping—well, maybe you have; I usually wait until Dec. 24 and then panic-buy random things next to cash registers in stores—so I thought I’d help by reposting my reviews of these beautiful books that would make wonderful gifts for the pop culture nerds in your life.

The reviews originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and are reprinted here with permission.

Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace

ghostbustersArriving more than 30 years after the original Ghostbusters movie made its debut in theaters and several months before the 2016 reboot with an all-female cast, Daniel Wallace’s Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History is an entertaining collection of behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the origin and production of the 1984 movie and its sequel. The book is generous with on-set pictures and recollections from the cast and crew, though many of the quotes are from previously published or broadcast sources. It also contains pullout memorabilia, such as storyboards, concept art and Peter Venkman’s business card.

Though it doesn’t explain why several key original crew members—including visual effects designer Richard Edlund and production designer John DeCuir—didn’t return for the sequel, this compendium is a must-have for fans who fondly remember the hit movie and are eagerly awaiting the remake.

Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgensen, Donald L. Scoggins

creating the illusionBesides Edith Head, how many influential costume designers could most cineastes name? Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins’s Creating the Illusion should help raise that number. This encyclopedic compilation contains profiles of—and interviews with—costume designers who’ve left indelible impressions on film throughout the last century.

For the adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, costume designer Adrian (a one-name wonder long before Cher’s and Madonna’s time) feared the silver slippers from the book wouldn’t pop on screen, so he made them ruby–and created movie history.

While Oscar-winner Gloria Wakeling moonlighted in TV, she designed Barbara Eden’s pink costume on I Dream of Jeannie. The intimidating Irene Sharaff created larger-than-life gowns for The King and I and Cleopatra, among others. Marilyn Monroe’s white, billowing dress? Designed by William Travilla. Who’s responsible for Neo’s black duster in The Matrix? Kym Barrett. They’re all here, along with many more, receiving rightful credit for helping shape iconic characters and sartorial moments in pop culture.

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