Monthly Archives

November 2011

Movie Review: WE BOUGHT A ZOO

There’s much ado about We Bought a Zoo (out Dec. 23) being Cameron’s first movie in six years, and whether or not this skews closer to Almost Famous or Elizabethtown. Being a family movie, it resembles neither, and it doesn’t measure up to his greatest work, either.

Based on the memoir by journalist Benjamin Mee, the concept is as the title says—Mee (Matt Damon) buys and moves his kids to a property with a zoo attached. Still mourning the death of his wife Katherine from an undisclosed illness (she had a brain tumor in real life), he wants to get away from all their familiar places in the city and believes the zoo would be a fresh start and grand adventure. But his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) hates it there, the zoo’s disrepair soon becomes a money drain, and Mee doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of exotic animals.

Luckily, the property comes with a staff, including zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), groundskeeper MacCready (Angus McFadyen), and Kelly’s thirteen-year-old niece, Lily (Elle Fanning), who’s too young to work but helps out anyway and gets paid in cash. They become an extended family to the Mees (extension of Mees?) as they labor to restore and reopen the zoo.

Zoo is brimming with heart and good intentions, but where it falters is in not knowing when to hold back. There are scenes that would have been more moving had they not gone on too long, and others that felt manipulative and/or predictable. Seven-year-old Rosie Mee (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) says a bad word at one point, a clichéd and unnecessary gimmick. Hey, want viewers to laugh? Have an old lady or little kid spout profanity! It’s not clear who the intended audience is. It’s rated PG and promoted as a family film, but it’s just over two hours long and, comedic elements aside, it deals with grief, a more dramatic subject than some young viewers might like.

But the movie is not without its winning moments and redeeming qualities. Damon manages to take the saccharine out of some of the more tear-jerking scenes—like Benjamin crying as he looks at photos of his wife—by not overplaying the emotion. The performance could’ve wandered into the land of earnestness and gotten lost, but Damon’s emotional compass keeps Mee going in the right direction. Johansson’s role is underdeveloped but, wearing minimal makeup and old work clothes, she is refreshingly earthy, reminding audiences she can be just as captivating, if not more so, when not playing a sex object or femme fatale. Little Jones, as Mee’s daughter, is impossibly cute but real, not overly precocious like some kids you see only in movies.

And you can’t have a Crowe movie without a catchy line of dialogue. While it may not blow up like “Show me the money” or “You complete me,” I’d guess that “All you need is twenty seconds of courage” is what you’ll take away from this.

Nerd verdict: Zoo is entertaining in parts, but I couldn’t completely buy into it

Photos: 20th Century Fox

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Book Review: THE DROP by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch might be facing retirement—DROP stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan—but there’s still a lot of evil for him to bring to justice. The story opens with him being assigned to an Open-Unsolved case that gets a hit when old DNA evidence—a drop of blood—is run through the database. What should be a nice break instead complicates things, since the match is for someone who couldn’t have committed the rape/murder twenty-two years ago, which calls into question the lab’s entire evidence-handling process.

Before Bosch can make much progress, he gets a fresh case involving a jumper at the famed Chateau Marmont. This one is full of “high jingo”—internal politics—since the body belongs to the son of Irvin Irving, the former deputy chief of police and current councilman who hates Bosch and has long tried to derail his career. Did George Irving commit suicide, or did someone with a grudge against Irving père murder him? Bosch juggles both cases, while also working in dates with an attractive psychologist and spending time with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Maddie, who now lives with him full-time after the events in Nine Dragons. The work leads him to horrific places, revealing things that will change him forever.

That’s one of the reasons I keep reading this series—Bosch changes, for better or worse. Some series authors hit the reset button as soon as one novel ends, with the next one showing no consequences from previous incidents. Connelly paints his detective more realistically. Bosch is dealing with advancing age, the cumulative effects of his years on the job, and being a single dad. This doesn’t mean he’s slathering on Ben-Gay or baking cookies with his kid. He’s just questioning whether he’s lost his edge to be a cop, if he should retire to be a full-time father. But how can he when there are still so many monsters to fight, so much more he must do to make the world a safer place for Maddie? It’s a dilemma that’s perfectly understandable, especially after what he encounters in this novel.

I had worried a teenager might cause unwelcome headaches in Bosch’s life, but Maddie is evolving into a young woman who’s sharp in thinking and shooting. Bosch has taught her how to use and respect guns, develop excellent observational skills, and she wants to follow in her father’s career footsteps. It’s a clever turn because if Harry does retire, it looks like there’s another relentless Bosch waiting in the wings.

Nerd verdict: Bosch not ready to Drop

Buy it now from Amazon| From an Indie Bookstore

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Thanksgiving in Wonderland

Some of you might know that I usually go over to my friend Mari’s house for Thanksgiving, and remember that last year she had a Harry Potter theme. This year she went with Alice in Wonderland, and her friends, Angie and Paul, hosted the dinner at their place.

Even though I’ve had the good fortune to experience Mari’s theme extravaganzas for twenty years now, my jaw never fails to drop whenever I see the magnificence she creates. These pictures, taken by her, only capture a small portion of the magic of being there, but I wanted to share them so you can come along with me on the journey down the rabbit hole.

Hope your Thanksgiving was more wonderful than your highest expectations.

How many characters can you identify? (Mari's in white)

More gorgeous than mad

Everyone was on time for tea, er, dinner when all this awaited

I did

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Movie Review: HUGO

It’s ironic that a movie about the wonderment of movies lacks that very quality overall, but that’s the case with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award-winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The adaptation is certainly stunning visually, especially in 3D, but comes across at times as mechanical as the clocks it features prominently.

The story centers around the orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who secretly lives at a train station in 1930s Paris, taking over his alcoholic uncle’s job of winding the clocks when the uncle (Ray Winstone) dies. He also assumes restoration duties on a broken “automaton”—a kind of robot with exposed gears—that he and his late dad (Jude Law) had been fixing up; he believes it holds a message from his father. Hugo has to do all this away from the eyes of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose mission in life is keeping the train station clear of thieving urchins and throwing them into orphanages.

Hugo’s lot vastly improves once he befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookish girl who helps smooth out relations between Hugo and her godfather, the grumpy toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) whose whimsical things and magic tricks fascinate Hugo. The boy in turn introduces Isabelle to his love of cinema, inherited from his father, and the two find that their purpose in life might be intertwined.

The cinematography by Robert Richardson and production design by Dante Ferretti are undeniably magnificent. I’m not a fan of everything being turned into 3D, but when it’s done right, as it is here, it’s a visual treat. An opening sweeping shot that takes viewers from a snowy Parisian landscape through the bustling train station up into the clock tower is breathtaking, as are the recreated sets and scenes from real, early twentieth-century films (don’t want to spoil whose old movies they are). There’s a glass studio in particular and shots viewed through an aquarium that do evoke wonder.

Wish I could say the same for the emotional aspects of Hugo. It’s about the love of cinema and books, two of my favorite things in the world, so it’s disappointing that it fails to resonate deeply with me. Despite the many clocks keeping time on screen, the movie’s pacing is off, dragging in the beginning and often indulging in beats between dialogue that felt unnecessary. Scorsese (look for his cameo in the movie) obviously loves his subject matter but is almost too reverential, too intent in crafting a perfect film in all areas but the heart.

Butterfield, with his big Elijah Wood-y blue eyes, is competent if not a little stiff, and Moretz, speaking in a British accent (the cast is mostly British, though the characters are French) seems affected, her smiles a bit too forced. Oddly enough, the earnest-girl persona doesn’t fit her nearly as well as the dark, dangerous characters she plays in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. It feels like she’s reining in all the edginess that makes her interesting to watch.

Kingsley saves the day, however, as the toy owner with the mysterious past. The only moving moments for me came near the end, when he delivers lines that landed right smack in my chest because they come from such a deep place for his character. Kingsley speaks them simply, without theatrics, providing real magic, not just an illusion.

Nerd verdict: Hugo is visually stunning, but not well-calibrated emotionally

Photos: Paramount Pictures

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Book Review: HELL & GONE by Duane Swierczynski

When I’m not blogging here, I’m A) goofing off, B) running with bears, or C) writing for Criminal Element and Shelf Awareness. If you’re not stalking me on the Internet, here are helpful links to recaps and commentary I did for CE of Whitechapel‘s season oneepisode one, two, and three (there are only three eps per season). It’s a dark British crime drama starring Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) and Phil Davis about detectives trying to catch a Jack the Ripper copycat. Season two just started last night on BBC America, with the detectives chasing killers emulating the Krays.

I’m also posting, with permission, my following review that ran on Shelf Awareness for Readers last Friday. If you haven’t started this series, now’s the time to jump in.

Hell & Gone by Duane Swierczynski

Many people use “hell” as a simile, but Duane Swierczynski uses it almost literally to describe the place where most of the action takes place in Hell & Gone, the second installment in the trilogy that started with Fun & Games. Charlie Hardie is kidnapped by the nefarious Accident People—killers who make their hits look like accidents—and sent deep underground to run a prison that supposedly holds the world’s most dangerous criminals. Life is hell in a place with no windows or sunlight, but if anyone tries to escape, everybody dies. Things turn topsy-turvy when one of the prisoners, a gorgeous woman, says she didn’t do anything wrong, that she was looking for Charlie when she was abducted and ended up there. The guards had warned Charlie about how she can mess with people’s heads, so who—and what—should he believe?

Like the previous book, the pace here is unrelenting. The story takes many bizarre turns, but Swierczynski is inventive enough to keep readers from guessing where it’s headed. Poor Charlie can never get a moment’s respite from the craziness around him, a situation whose purpose he still doesn’t understand, much less his role in it. It’s difficult to see “Unkillable Chuck” weakened by injuries he sustained during his first encounter with the Accident People and the mysterious medical procedures they inflict on him at the beginning of this novel. He does get to strike back in the end, though his actions don’t achieve all the desired results. It’s okay, because Point & Shoot is yet to come next March. And if the cliffhanger is an indication, the finale promises to be out of this world.

Nerd verdict: Hell for Charlie; fun for readers

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from IndieBound

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Movie Review: THE DESCENDANTS

Writer/director Alexander Payne has a thing for making films about people who aren’t readily likable, the type we laugh at, not with. Ruthlessly ambitious Tracy Flick from Election, pregnant junkie Ruth from Citizen Ruth, and depressed Miles and philandering Jack from Sideways aren’t the kind of company most of us would want to keep in real life. But while his latest protagonist from The Descendants—an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel—is flawed in many ways, Matt King is someone audiences can root for. The fact that he’s portrayed by George Clooney has a lot to do with that, but not for the obvious reasons.

Matt is a lawyer living in Hawaii whose wife, Elizabeth, slips into a coma after incurring head trauma in a boating accident. He’s suddenly faced with raising his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amarie Miller), something he’s rather helpless about, having been the “back-up parent.” Worse, he finds out from his older girl, Alex, that his wife had been having an affair. He takes his kids and Alex’s doofus friend (Nick Krause) on a trip to track down Elizabeth’s lover. In the midst of all this, he also has to decide whether to sell to developers the acres of untouched land that have been in his family for generations, a deal that would make him and his cousins phenomenally rich but may not be best for the island.

Audiences have never seen Clooney like this—he’s an ineffective man. There is nothing slick or sly about him. Yes, he’s successful professionally but out of his depth in his personal life. He doesn’t know how to communicate with his daughters, he can’t seem to even get angry at his wife for cheating on him, he takes verbal abuse from his father-in-law (Robert Forster), who irrationally blames Matt for Elizabeth being in a coma (Matt wasn’t even there when the accident occurred), and when he does come face to face with her boyfriend, he doesn’t confront him in the way we’d expect, though the scene is much more affecting for it. Clooney internalizes Matt’s struggles, and there are times when I wanted him to explode, to express his anger and pain, but that would have been predictable and Clooney’s performance is anything but. Matt may suffer quietly, but he’s not a doormat, and in the end he shows that perhaps he has more backbone and dignity than anyone else.

The supporting cast is superb, even Matthew Lillard, aka Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo movies, as Elizabeth’s lover. His pivotal scene with Clooney shows more depth than I’ve ever seen in his previous work. Judy Greer also has a memorable scene when her character—don’t want to spoil who she plays—behaves in a completely surprising way.

The big discovery, though, is nineteen-year-old Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager). When we first meet Alex, I thought she’d be the kind of sullen, disrespectful teenager I have no patience for. But as the movie progresses, Alex slowly becomes not only someone who takes her father’s side, but a substitute mother to her ten-year-old sister. Woodley’s performance, combined with her striking looks and husky voice, signals a major star in the making.

Payne said something in the post-screening Q&A that best sums up what he did with this movie. He quoted Billy Wilder: “Say 2+2, never say 4.” (Clooney interjected, “Some [American films] say 5.”) Descendants is as striking for what Payne chose to omit as for what he included. When he said he didn’t show certain things because the audience already knows what happened, he’s absolutely right. I so appreciated his decision because obviousness is a pet peeve of mine in narrative fiction. How often does a director trust viewers to use their imagination to fill in the blanks?

What Payne didn’t leave out was humor, making us chuckle even while the characters squirm in uncomfortable situations. He also used entirely pre-existing Hawaiian music for the soundtrack because he wanted to “give a gift to Hawaii.” In the process, he also created one for the rest of us.

Nerd verdict: Transcendent Descendants

Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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Movie Review: THE ARTIST

In the past five days I’ve seen eight movies, most of them considered Oscar contenders. I loathed a couple, liked a few, but there’s one that I’m passionate about, a film I can unequivocally get behind when the awards race heats up: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (out 11/23).

When I told a friend I was going to see a silent, black and white French film set in 1920s Hollywood during the transition between silent movies and talkies, she joked that she’d fallen asleep while I was describing it. Normally, I might have been snoozing right alongside her, but this was the most buoyant, unique, and charming film I’ve seen in a long time. If that’s not enough, it features a really cool Jack Russell terrier who should get an award for best supporting dog.

The film opens in 1927, with silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) at the height of his popularity. At one of his premieres, he literally bumps into one of his fans. They mug for the cameras and she ends up with her picture on the front page of Variety but remains a mystery woman. Turns out she’s an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and the two meet again when she gets a bit part in his next movie. The chemistry between them is potent, but the friendship stays platonic as George remains faithful to his wife despite their unhappy marriage.

As the story moves forward into the next few years, George’s fame starts to wane when he resists the advent of talkies, while Peppy becomes a sensation by embracing the new technology. But she never forgets the man who gave her valuable advice at the beginning of her career, watching over him even when he thinks he’s lost everything, and eventually helping him find his way back to what he loves most.

Now comes the part when I unleash a bunch of glowing adjectives to convince you to see the movie. Writer/director Hazanavicius has created a lovely valentine to the cinema, showing the heart and sometimes heartbreak behind the magic we see on screen. His cast is led by the exuberant Dujardin as Valentin—he deservedly won the best actor award at Cannes this year—and the captivating Bejo as Peppy. They spark together, managing to convey first attraction and then something much deeper, all with minimal physical contact and no dialogue.

The supporting players include John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, but the standout has to be Uggie, the dog who plays Valentin’s loyal companion on screen and off. He’s a combination of Asta and Lassie, accomplishing feats both clever and heroic.

The period costumes by Mark Bridges are gorgeous (Bejo’s nightgown is glamorous enough to wear to an awards show), composer Ludovic Bource hits all the right notes with the score, which is even more important in conveying the tone in the absence of dialogue, and DP Guillaume Schiffman makes everything look stunning in black and white photography. Every aspect of this movie is a delight, and not only did I not fall asleep, I left the theater feeling revived and, well, peppy.

Nerd verdict: A delightful, creative Artist

Photos: The Weinstein Company

Note: If you’re interested in hearing the stars speak about the movie, check out this video of the Q&A they did after the L.A. Times Envelope screening I attended. Bejo spoke fluent English but Dujardin brought an interpreter. He also claimed he didn’t speak “American dog” well enough to communicate with Uggie during filming but helped things along by carrying sausage in his pockets.

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Movie Review: J. EDGAR

The problem with biopics is, even if the subject is someone who led an extraordinary life, it rarely translates into riveting drama when the film compresses that whole life into two hours. It becomes a laundry list of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this…,” sucking all the significance out of each event.

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, in limited release Nov. 9 and opening wide Nov. 11, stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role, playing the first director of the FBI from about twenty years old to his death at the age of 77. It encompasses his rise from being a fresh-faced Justice Department employee to being appointed the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigations (precursor to the FBI), trying to solve the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, keeping secret files on high-profile public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and JFK, lobbying for a centralized database of fingerprints to be used for identifying criminals, etc. Yes, he accomplished a lot during his years in office, but the way Eastwood handles these proceedings isn’t that exciting cinematically. DiCaprio narrates over some of the scenes, which enhances the soporific effect.

The movie does wink at the rumors that Hoover was a cross-dresser, though the incident is given an emotional context and depicted in an unsensational way. J. Edgar also covers his relationships with the three most important people in his life—his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Ms. Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). DiCaprio, who did Q & A after the screening, says his extensive research unearthed no evidence the two men were ever lovers, but the script by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for Milk) posits there was deep love between them.

DiCaprio does a commendable job, able to emote even through all the old-man makeup. He’s not content to let it do the heavy lifting for him—he changes his voice, posture, and gait as Hoover ages, slowly eliminating all traces of his own blue-eyed heartthrobness (he wears brown contacts).

Watts is wasted in an underdeveloped role that hardly requires her to use any of her considerable skills. Her scenes consist mostly of her taking dictation and carrying out other administrative duties. Ms. Gandy worked with Hoover for fifty-four years and was the one he trusted with his confidential files, but the movie reveals nothing about her personal life or emotional makeup to explain why she remained dedicated to the capricious Hoover for so long.

The heart of the movie is provided by Hammer, who confirmed for me, after his underrated work in The Social Network, that he’s an exciting young actor to watch. As the Winklevoss twins, he was macho and hotheaded; as Tolson, he’s a refined gentleman whose eyes visibly soften from the first moment he lays them on Hoover. Hammer doesn’t do anything overt to suggest Tolson’s sexuality; his performance is more affecting for the restraint, the little gestures that allow us to fill in the rest. It’s obvious Hammer has leading-man looks, but it’s his range that indicates he might have a career in movies almost as long as Hoover’s in the FBI.

Nerd verdict: J. Edgar ho-hum

Photos: Warner Bros.

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Movie Discussion: Steven Soderbergh’s HAYWIRE

As part of the AFI Fest presented by Audi going on here in Los Angeles, there’s a secret screening that’s announced on the day of the screening. Organizers revealed hours before the Sunday night event that the secret movie was Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (to be released January 20, 2012), an action-thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. But the anchor of the movie is mixed martial arts star Gina Carano as Mallory Kane, an operative with a private contractor who does dangerous work for the government. A journalist she successfully rescues in Barcelona ends up dead and she’s framed for his murder, becoming the target of assassins almost as lethal as she is.

I was at the 9:30 screening with my trustworthy contributor Eric Edwards, so we decided to discuss it afterward in lieu of a regular movie review.

Pop Culture Nerd: Carano is badass for sure, completely convincing as a tough chick who beats the crap out of everyone. I didn’t think the movie was entirely successful, though. The fights were amazing, but  some of the non-physical scenes were clunky.

Eric Edwards: I really enjoyed it. The story was very much a low-rent spy thriller but the cast makes it work. Usually producers hire a star or two and fill out the rest of the cast with lesser stars. What Soderbergh did was hire a non-actress and fill even small supporting roles with stars and well-known actors so she wouldn’t have to carry the movie by herself.

PCN: But it’s obviously a showcase for her, and everyone else just came along for the ride. She’s kinetic to watch in the fight scenes, but you can tell she’s less comfortable in the ones when she’s just talking (Carano admits that in the post-screening Q & A). Some of her line readings sounded like just that—someone reading from a page. But she’s beautiful, and I like her, and that’s why I wanted her to be a better actress. I suppose that will come with time and more experience if she does more movies.

EE: For me it was simpler than that. She’s sympathetic because her character is being screwed over. In every fight scene, she’s going up against a guy who’s bigger than her—

PCN:  Except for Ewan McGregor.

EE: Hey now, don’t pick on Obi-Wan.

PCN: Just sayin’. Now, Michael Fassbender is a formidable opponent. He’s ripped, and their fight scene is the best.

EE: Yup. Hands down. I still don’t know how either one of them survived that.

PCN: Fassbender said he puked after two days of filming it!

EE: I’m surprised he didn’t puke while shooting. Did you see how many times her knee went into his gut?

PCN: And elsewhere. You know, for a brutal fight flick, there was very minimal blood, and I appreciated that. It wasn’t injury porn.

EE: Yeah, surprisingly little blood, but I felt every one of those hits, didn’t you?

PCN: Not really, ’cause I’m not a man and I don’t have balls. I was exhausted after each fight.

EE: Yeah, her style of fighting was breathtaking.

PCN: I liked that they didn’t try to make it pretty. It was raw and dirty. She fought to survive.

EE: And you were always rooting for her.

PCN: I thought the pacing lagged whenever the action stopped. There were weird pauses and drawn-out moments that I felt could have been more tightly edited.

EE: I disagree. The flashbacks worked well as a device to explain what was going on. Soderbergh showed us the backstory without making Carano fill us in. I think it was a smart move to give her fewer lines and let her shine elsewhere.

PCN: I got a little bored when it was just dudes explaining stuff.

EE: It was necessary!

PCN: Let’s talk about the music. Did it sound to you like it was from a cheesy ’70s action film?

EE: Yes, but I think Soderbergh did that because the story felt that way in general. It was a wink to the audience.

PCN: Why do you think Soderbergh was trying to evoke cheesy ’70s movies?

EE: Because it’s kind of retro cool. Maybe he’s trying to reinvent the B-movie by making one with an A-list cast.

PCN: He said in the Q & A he was going for a kind of early Bond movie so I guess the score needed to go back at least another decade.

EE: Well, it worked for me, and I don’t think there’s anything like this movie out there.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—Haywire but enjoyable. EE—Haywire is a cinematic haymaker.

Soderbergh, McGregor, Fassbender, and Carano participated in a hilarious Q & A afterward moderated by Joel McHale. I’ll post a recap of that, as well as reviews of other festival films, within the next week. AFI Fest continues through November 10.

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Book Review: THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE by Lene Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis

Originally reviewed for Shelf Awareness, printed here with permission.

When Nina Borg agreed to do a favor for her friend Karin and pick up a suitcase from a train-station locker in Copenhagen, she never imagined she’d find a naked and drugged three-year-old boy inside. Who is he? Why was he stuffed in the suitcase? Was he being removed from an abusive household? Instinctively deciding she can’t go to the police, Nina tracks down Karin, who has fled from her home. But before Nina can get answers, Karin is murdered and Nina goes on the run, pursued by Karin’s killer, who will kill again to get his hands on the boy.

The Boy in the Suitcase (Soho Crime, out Nov. 8), first in a bestselling Scandinavian series, is told from alternating POVs but the central figure is Nina, a Red Cross nurse who goes to considerable lengths to help strangers but sometimes neglects her husband and children. This makes her more a relatable everywoman than a superhero, and she does have a compelling reason for her behavior. The story actually encompasses several different types of mothers, all struggling to do the right thing but sometimes at great personal cost.

Authors Kaaberbol and Friis imbue the characters with a duality that elevates them from being crime-fiction stereotypes. A prostitute can bond easily with the boy, a nasty aunt can be sympathetic, and the villain’s motive for violence is more idealistic than evil. It makes the novel as much a character study and social commentary as a heart-in-throat thriller that should resound with readers long after Suitcase is tucked away.

Nerd verdict: Crack open Suitcase

Buy it from Amazon| Buy from IndieBound

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Movie Madness

Hammer, DiCaprio, Judi Dench in J. EDGAR

The next couple of weeks are going to be craaazy but it’s all good. Awards season is here and I’ll be attending loads of screenings of some of the most anticipated fall and winter movies with key talent doing Q & A afterward. I’ve already seen Alexander Payne’s The Descendants with George Clooney (review coming soon), and tonight I’ll be viewing Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar plus discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer. Tomorrow I’ll be seeing—wait for it—The Adventures of Tintin!

Thursday is also the start of the AFI Fest, with J. Edgar as the opening night gala presentation and Tintin closing the festival on November 10. In case you didn’t know this already, all tickets are FREE.

Jean Dujardin & Missi Pyle in THE ARTIST

The lineup is quite impressive with many high-profile films, including The Artist, Michel Haznavicius’s black and white silent film about 1920s Hollywood; Roman Polanski’s Carnage, featuring an all-star cast including Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster; Steve McQueen’s Shame, the NC-17 film starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as siblings; Jim Field Smith’s Butter, set in the world of competitive butter-carving; Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton and based on Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother trying to understand why her son committed an atrocity; and Oren Moverman’s Rampart, which reunites the writer/director with his stars from The Messenger, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, in a drama about the LAPD’s Rampart corruption scandal. Crime fiction fans, take note: the script was co-written by James Ellroy.

I plan to see all these movies, either at AFI Fest or through the Los Angeles Times Envelope screening series, so check back for reviews and recaps of conversations with the filmmakers. That way, when nominees are announced for the bazillion awards that will be given out in the next few months, you can act snooty and say you already know all about them! If I don’t get around to writing full reports on everything, I’ll at least post interesting tidbits on Facebook or Twitter.

Any of these sound good to you? Which fall/winter movies are you most looking forward to?

Photos: J. Edgar/Warner Bros; The Artist/The Weinstein Company

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