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December 2011

Favorite Books and Movies of 2011

I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth, just traveling still and wrapping up my magical, mystery tour. During the past two weeks, I’ve often been uncertain of what day it was, but I’m pretty sure today is the last in 2011 so I thought I’d write about some favorite books and movies I experienced this year. I’m lurking in the parking lot outside a Dunkin’ Donuts stealing its Wi-Fi so hopefully I can do this quickly. Click on links to read my reviews.

Favorite revival of a classic character: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. The author perfectly captured Dr. Watson’s narrative voice, and provided not one but two clever mysteries that could only be solved by the inimitable Sherlock Holmes.

Favorite Scandinavian crime novel: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen. I read some excellent ones, including Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist and Lene Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis’s The Boy in the Suitcase, but Keeper has the edge because of the engaging crime-solving duo of Carl Morck and his assistant, Assad, and the humor Adler-Olsen injects into a grim story.

Book that caused me to lose most water weight: Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington. The story of a fifteen-year-old coping with her father going away to war made me weep copiously, while also making me laugh in parts and swoon over the beauty of its prose.

Craziest adventures: Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games and Hell & Gone. You don’t just read these novels—the first two in the Charlie Hardie trilogy—you experience them in a visceral way, the whole time thinking, “What the hell?” and “More!” Luckily, there is more coming in March—the final installment, Point & Shoot.

Favorite thriller that made me invest in Purell: Brett Battles’ Sick. Technically, life as we know it hasn’t ended yet, but it will if Daniel Ash and his colleagues can’t stop some seriously screwed-up people. No one is safe in this story, not even children, which ratchets up the tension. Full disclosure: I was a Beta reader and copyedited it, but the novel was already pretty kick-ass when it came to me.

Favorite dystopian zombie sexy hybrid: Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime. I read neither dystopian nor zombie novels, but this one, about a mother searching for her child in a world after something terrible happened, moved me and scared me. It also has a really hot sex scene that you probably shouldn’t read in front of your parents or a priest.

Most entertaining true stories: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I don’t read memoirs, either, but devoured this thing in about one sitting because it’s hilarious and insightful. If she writes another book on the correct method of flossing, I’d read that, too.

Favorite overall movie: The Artist. It made me happy and the smile lingers weeks later. This ties in with the next award for…

Best supporting animal: Uggie from The Artist. He had strong competition from the horses who played Joey in War Horse and Snowy in The Adventures of Tintin, but Uggie did all the acting and stunts himself, while three horses shared duty as Joey and Snowy isn’t real.

Most surprisingly good rom-com: Crazy, Stupid, Love. Romantic comedies are hard to pull off and usually end up being corny, but this one is actually romantic and funny, thanks to Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, and Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s abs should’ve also received top billing.

Most jaw-dropping stunts: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. All-out fun, with innovative action scenes that did look pretty impossible to pull off.

Darkest, coolest noir: Drive. This movie left me shaking, it was so tense and good. Out of all the stellar performances Gosling turned in this year, this was my favorite.

Most affecting performance by an actor playing an icon: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Everyone has an opinion about Marilyn and knows so much about her already, but Williams still manages to bring out interesting facets of the legend’s psyche and make our heart break all over again.

My battery light on the laptop is flashing so I’d better wrap this up. Plus, the Dunkin’ Donuts manager is eyeing me suspiciously from the window. Hope you have a fun but safe New Year’s Eve and a magnificent 2012 that goes beyond your imagination.





OK, my thoughts aren’t THAT loud and there are no tattoos on Joey, the horse in War Horse (there is a birthmark), but I am combining my thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and War Horse in this post. I’ve been traveling and it’s been planes, trains, and automobiles for the past twenty-four hours, so the following won’t be full-length reviews but lists of the pertinent points I want to make about each movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

If you’re curious about this movie at all, it’s probably because you’re a) a diehard fan of the books and/or Swedish movies and want to compare, b) you haven’t read or seen any of the other versions but are thinking about checking this out to see what all the Stieg Larsson and Lisbeth Salander hubbub is about, or c) you’re a David Fincher fan. So here’s what you want to know:

  1. Rooney Mara is convincing but her Lisbeth is different than Noomi Rapace’s. Rapace was fiercer, with an undercurrent of anger even when she was still, whereas Mara’s Lisbeth is cooler, as in detached. She also looks younger and more waifish, closer to the book’s description. Bottom line, though, Rapace’s performance leaves a much more indelible impression.
  2. If you’ve read the books and seen the Swedish movie, you don’t need to see this one (my review of the book is here and the Swedish movie here). It’s faithful, down to the sluggish exposition in the beginning. There are no surprises because you know everything. The change in the ending, a source of controversy, is not a big deal and it works. Without it, the two-and-a-half-hour movie would’ve been even longer.
  3. Except for the dark, freaky title sequence, you can’t tell this is a Fincher movie, though after The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Fincher style seems to be expanding.
  4. The biggest laugh at the screening I attended came from a T-shirt Lisbeth is wearing when she first meets Mikael.
  5. Daniel Craig is a sexier Mikael Blomkvist, which justifies his ladies’ man status in the novels. The actor starts out doing a slight Swedish accent but abandons it fairly quickly (everyone else keeps theirs on). This isn’t about him, though. It’s Mara’s movie. And while she does just fine, Rapace left combat boots that are hard to fill.

Nerd verdict: Fine film, but redundant for those previously Tattooed

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The protagonist of this movie, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, might also be autistic or have Asperger’s, like Lisbeth. Eleven-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died in 9/11, finds a key the senior Schell left behind and goes on a quest to find out where the key fits, believing it’s a clue to a puzzle his dad would’ve wanted him to solve.

  1. Thomas Horn, who has never acted before, is an amazing find as Oskar. His role is extremely difficult, for not only does he carry the movie, but he has long monologues spouting facts and figures that would twist the tongue of actors twice his age and experience. Horn is a Jeopardy! kids champion and obviously has the smarts to make the dialogue convincing, but he also has emotional intelligence, a harder thing to access, especially on cue. You can see him thinking, and then feel what he feels.
  2. Tom Hanks plays the dad in jovial Hanks fashion, and Bullock has some moving moments as the mom. It’s nice that it’s no longer a surprise when she turns in strong dramatic work. Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and Max von Sydow also have standout scenes, but their roles are all small.
  3. It might still be too soon (it may always be) for a wide audience to accept a movie about 9/11. Scenes of people falling from the sky in slo-mo don’t help.

Nerd verdict: Perhaps too Loud, too soon

War Horse

An English lad named Albert raises and trains a horse named Joey that his father bought at auction to help around their farm. It’s quite clear, though, that Joey is much too spirited for mundane farm life, and when WWI breaks out, Albert’s father sells him to the cavalry. The movie is Joey’s journey through the war and the people—civilians and military from all sides—whose lives he touches.

  1. The horses who play Joey are great actors, displaying such a vivid personality, you can almost tell what Joey would say if he could talk. If you’re not invested in his fate, then your heart is smaller than the Grinch’s.
  2. Director Steven Spielberg thankfulky holds back on the war depiction instead of giving us the full Private Ryan, but some of the scenes are no less traumatic. Yes, awful things happen to the horses. I wept more than once, but didn’t feel manipulated because of Spielberg’s restraint.
  3. Tom Hiddleston (Loki!), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock!), and Emily Watson have small roles but make the most of them. Their absense is felt when they’re not on screen.
  4. The most memorable scene is one that shows the ridiculousness of war, how people wouldn’t want to kill each other if they could see they’re not that different when standing eye to eye instead of gun to head. The scene is more striking because it uses humor in the middle of a tense situation, and the point is made while we’re laughing, which is sometimes a more effective way to communicate than making others cry.

Nerd verdict: Star Horse

What are you looking to seeing this weekend? If I don’t see you here again before Sunday, I wish you a holiday that makes you feel like a kid waiting for Santa to come the night before. Smile big, spread joy, and may it come back to you tenfold.



Today I’m discussing The Adventures of Tintin with my regular contributor Eric Edwards. This is partly because I wanted someone else to do half the work, but also because I thought another point of view from someone who’s less a rabid fan of Hergé’s work would be valuable. Since Eric attends many of the industry screenings I do, he was the perfect victim.

Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on the popular-in-Europe series of comic books about the intrepid boy reporter and his trusty canine companion, Snowy. The movie borrows plot points from a few of the books so a lot happens, but it boils down to Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) meeting Captain Haddock (Andy  Serkis), and their chasing an archenemy (Daniel Craig) and buried treasure across different countries via boat, plane, and motorbike.

Pop Culture Nerd: I thought this was well made in many ways but it feels like a kids’ movie because the humor is broad and the characters are caricatures. Ironically, Tintin seems more three-dimensional in the books to me, whereas he’s kind of bland here.

Eric Edwards: The books were pretty flat to me, but Hergé always managed to work in a little bit of wit that was missing here. For example, Snowy had thought bubbles in the books and his banter with other animals was hilarious.

PCN: That’s a good point. Snowy’s personality is much sharper on paper because we can tell what he’s thinking. He’s feisty and funny.

EE: In the movie, he’s really only allowed to be cute.

PCN: Spielberg said in this L.A. Times article that Snowy was the reason he decided not to do this in live action: “There was too much demanded from the dog and the risk was too high to go with dog trainers and several look-a-like dogs.” I wish he’d talked to the person who trained Uggie for The Artist and then tried the live-action route.

EE: Yeah! Uggie could do lots of stuff!

PCN: Snowy issues aside, what’d you think of this movie overall?

EE: I found it underwhelming because I need to relate to the protagonist, but Tintin’s too much of a Boy Scout and everyone else is an oaf and the villain is just evil. Some of the chase scenes were pretty cool, though.

PCN: Yeah, especially the sequence when they’re chasing that bird in the motorcycle and sidecar. That was wow-inducing and justified seeing the movie in 3D. The motion capture has come a long way…

EE: Their eyes are much more alive.

PCN: Yes. No more creepy Polar Expressions. The animation is really well done. Some of the vistas are gorgeous.

EE: It was so real that it became unreal, because it’s almost too perfect. Like in the desert, I don’t know if you can find sand that clean and pure.

PCN: Let’s talk about the score.

EE: It didn’t stand out for me.

PCN: It was a lesser imitation of the Raiders theme in some parts. I noticed similar notes and rhythms. John Williams went for rousing but didn’t quite get there.

EE: Speaking of Raiders, I don’t understand why people are comparing this to that. I don’t think it’s worthy in any shape or form.

PCN: I think it’s apples and coconuts. Raiders was for adults. It had Nazis, romance, violence (remember propeller guy?), mysticism, melting faces. This movie, while respecting the source material and being fairly faithful, seems more directed at kids. Adults can still enjoy it, but I hope they check out the books afterward, for themselves and their children.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—Tintin more 3D on paper, EE—Tintin isn’t gold.

Art: WETA Digital Ltd.



I’ve seen so many movies lately and am so behind on reviews that I realized the only way to get them done is to write mini ones. Today’s batch:

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (Dec. 16)

I didn’t like the last one and wasn’t over the moon about the first two, so it was a pleasant surprise to find myself having a lot of fun watching #4. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles), in his live-action debut, has revived the franchise and made it exciting. This time, the mission is to prevent nuclear war, but it’s really just an excuse for some nail-biting action. Standout scenes include a chase—on foot and on wheels—in a sandstorm with no visibility, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climbing the tallest building in the world in Dubai, and a fight inside a parking garage where Hunt does something insane with a BMW. The supporting actors—Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg—are not your cookie-cutter action stars. They bring a little humanity to their characters, with Pegg providing the humor. But this is Cruise’s movie, and he shows he’s still vital. There’s been talk of him passing the torch to Renner, but after this, I think Cruise should keep leading the IMF team, at least for a couple more missions. Nerd verdict: Accept this Mission.

Carnage (Dec. 16)

The entire movie, based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, takes place in one afternoon in one location—the apartment of a couple whose young son has been hit by a classmate. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael, the parents of the “victim,” and Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet are Alan and Nancy, whose son is the aggressor. The four start out politely trying to negotiate how they should deal with the incident, but the gathering slowly devolves into a nasty session of finger pointing, name calling, and literal projectile vomiting. Roman Polanski gets solid performances out of all four actors, but the problem is none of the characters is very likable. Watching it is like being at a really uncomfortable tea party. Alan can’t stop yapping on his cell phone, Michael turns out to be a boor, Penny is uptight, and Nancy is high-strung. When they start yelling insults at each other, I just wanted to leave the room. Nerd verdict: Carnage is emotional road kill.

Young Adult (Dec. 9)

Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a YA writer whose maturity level seems stuck in adolescence. After she gets a baby announcement from her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), she returns to her hometown in Minnesota determined to win him back. Who cares if he’s married to a sweet woman (Elizabeth Reaser) and just became a father? Mavis is gorgeous and they once had a connection so she’s certain he should be with her. Theron, directed by Jason Reitman, goes balls to the wall with the emotionally screwed-up Mavis (who might also be alcoholic), and her refusal to ask for the audience’s sympathy is impressive. I’ve always thought Theron a gutsy actress and this might be her gutsiest performance, playing an ugly character without the help of prosthetics like in Monster. But Mavis is inaccessible, partly because she has no character arc. She learns nothing from her experiences so what is the point of our taking this journey with her? So we can laugh at or feel sorry for her? That’s the last thing she would want. Nerd verdict: Adult more cringeworthy than puberty.


Tired Soldier Spy(ing) on Firth

I went to a Variety screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last night, something I was looking forward to seeing. Unfortunately, running on only four hours’ sleep from the night before, I nodded off at one point in the movie—lots of men talking in low tones did the trick—and when I woke, I had no idea what was going on. I heard that people who stayed awake thought it was dense, so although I pried open my eyes Clockwork Orange-style for the rest of the two hours+, I was too lost to review it properly.

But the evening wasn’t lost, as my boyf Oscar-winner Colin Firth was there to do Q&A, along with Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), co-screenwriter Peter Straughan (he and Bridget O’Connor adapted the John le Carré novel), and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. Since I’m not reviewing, I’ll just throw up a couple of pictures and call it a day. Enjoy!

Oldman & Firth

Firth & Strong


I’ve been TAKEN

If my blog activity slows down a bit in the next week or so, it may not be due to my crazy-ass work schedule or Christmas shopping. After all, Christmas came early this year.

No, I might make myself scarce because I’ve been Taken. By Elvis and Joe. To an undisclosed location, where who knows what will happen.

Since I’m magnanimous, I’ll allow you to shove me down the stairs as many times as you wish. Poke me with a stick, blast Michael Bolton music in my face if you must. I’ve got my padded suit on. Let’s go!



Book Review: THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz

First, I have to mention the gorgeous cover, which this picture doesn’t fully depict. The gold letters are raised against a rich, deep navy background resembling curtains, which, taken with the “silk” in the title, evoke a sense of luxury. It begs readers to peek behind it to see what treasures lie within. What I found was a treat indeed, but I also realized that the title and cover art are ironic in a devastating way.

The adventure, set in 1890, begins inauspiciously enough with an art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, contacting Sherlock Holmes to say he believes he’s being stalked by a thug wearing a flat cap who has followed him from America. Carstairs believes the man plans to do him harm. Holmes brings in the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street urchins, to help. Things go awry, dead bodies start to appear, and the case turns out to be much more sinister and far-reaching than either Holmes or Watson could have imagined.

Anthony Horowitz has done something clever. This being the first Holmes novel the Arthur Conan Doyle estate has ever commissioned, the author decided to make it darker than any story in the official canon. It neatly explains why it’s coming to light now—it’s so disturbing, Watson left instructions saying it could only be published a hundred years after his death—while also making it contemporary, because the subject matter is not something Conan Doyle could have written about in his day.

Horowitz captures Watson’s narrative voice quite well, throwing in lots of familiar elements (“When you have eliminated the impossible…”) and characters—Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, the Irregulars, Inspector Lestrade (painted in a more benevolent light here), and perhaps even a certain professor. The author has created not just one but two mysteries, both compelling, and then weaves them together in a way that seems effortless and as smooth as, well, silk. This is a must-read for hardcore fans, while also being an elegant introduction to those calling at 221B Baker Street for the first time.

Nerd verdict: House of thrills

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore


Movie Review: SHAME

If you haven’t heard already, let’s just get this out of the way: Michael Fassbender goes full frontal and this movie is rated NC-17. But neither is the reason you should see it. Despite its provocative elements, the most memorable thing about Shame is Fassbender’s raw, fearless performance.

Brandon (Fassbender) is a sex addict, a guy who can’t get through the day without surfing porn sites at work and taking bathroom breaks to relieve himself in a way that doesn’t fall under number one or two. But he can’t do it when emotional connections are involved; the sex has to be anonymous and meaningless.

All this comes to a head when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, who also appears nude) shows up at his place and asks to stay for an unspecific amount of time. The two have a prickly relationship, she has her own issues, and they both descend into their separate hell before there’s hope that they might start to heal.

If the synopsis sounds skimpy, it’s because this is more a character study, which is not normally my bag since I’m more into plot-driven movies. The subject matter isn’t something I’m usually drawn to, and Brandon and Sissy aren’t exactly lovable. So why do I recommend it? Because Fassbender’s hypnotic work—yes, his acting—made it impossible for me to look away, and weeks after I saw it, his performance still resonates as one of the most powerful I’ve seen this year.

With Nicole Beharie

Despite Brandon’s problem, Fassbender makes him sympathetic. He’s not lascivious or skeevy; he’s quite the gentleman to women he has feelings for (he calls up prostitutes to feed his addiction). His physical nudity isn’t as striking as the emotional nakedness. There’s a scene when Brandon, in the middle of a sex act, suddenly has a look of self-loathing that’s so startlingly painful, it’s the most graphic shot in the film. And this is with the camera staying tight and long on Fassbender’s face.

Ah, his face—the most valuable asset in Shame. Director/writer (with Abi Morgan) Steve McQueen likes long, close-up takes, and not every actor has enough confidence or skill to withstand them. Luckily, the leads here are up to the task, even if I found some of those long takes unnecessary. Mulligan sings New York, New York in a slow jam with the camera examining her every pore for what felt like half an hour—why?

More effective are the extended shots of Brandon on the subway, looking at the female passengers around him. He sits perfectly still, but you can see everything happening in his eyes—the moment he latches on to a possible conquest, what he’s thinking about doing with her, how he’ll feel about it afterward. He might experience some shame, but for this performance, Fassbender can be proud.

Nerd verdict: Powerful Shame

Photos: Fox Searchlight/Abbot Genser