Monthly Archives

December 2014

Movie Review: UNBROKEN

unbroken jack oconnell running

Much of the interest in Unbroken (out Dec. 25) comes from people wondering whether or not Angelina Jolie is a good director, so I’ll start by saying she acquits herself well, especially with a production that involves a lot of shooting on water. The film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book is sweeping and epic, with impressive cinematography by Roger Deakins, but there’s an earnestness that prevents the film from being great.

It opens with a WWII gun battle in the sky, an excitingly shot and sharply edited sequence that puts viewers right inside the bomber with the film’s subject, Louis Zamperini, and his fellow airmen. Then the movie flashes back to when Zamperini was a boy growing up in Southern California, stealing, drinking, and smoking by the time he was nine.

Seeing how fast Zamperini can run away from police, his brother Pete encourages him to run track. Zamperini makes it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he runs the final lap in the 5000-meter in 56 seconds.

unbroken-raftCut back to Zamperini in the US Army Air Corps and a search mission that leads him to crash into the Pacific Ocean and drift for 47 days with, initially, two other men. They endure exposure and hunger and thirst and hopelessness before being “rescued” by Japanese soldiers, who then throw them into a POW camp and submit them to sadistic treatment for two years until the end of the war.

The story is incredible and Zamperini an astonishing and inspiring figure, but it seems as if Jolie fell in love with the real man a bit too deeply and ended up smoothing his edges too much. He was a rascal as a child, and I’ve read the man, who died this past July at 97, was a flirt.

But in the movie, as soon as Zamperini starts channeling his energy into running, he becomes a straight-up hero. If he’d been allowed to be portrayed by the able Jack O’Connell (with fabulous hair) as a bit more mischievous or a likable scoundrel, he would’ve come across more full bodied on screen.

O’Connell spoke at the screening I attended (Jolie was also scheduled to appear but was sidelined by chicken pox) and he seems to have that combination of rough edges and mischief that Jolie probably saw when she cast him. The movie Louie could’ve used more of those qualities.

unbroken miyaviJapanese singer Miyavi, in his acting debut, leaves an impression as The Bird, the head torturer of Zamperini and other captured American soldiers. Miyavi’s performance conveys the sense of The Bird’s overcompensation for his shortcomings as a man and a soldier, how he must try to break those he perceives as stronger.

The beatings are hard to watch, but thankfully Jolie isn’t gratuitous about the violence. It’s necessary to show what Zamperini and the other prisoners endured, but Jolie does so by pulling back and shooting from afar and in shadows, or allowing only sounds to imply the horrors being suffered.

Overall, Unbroken is a bit safe from a director known for taking risks in her acting, but it contains potent moments and the powerful message that even in the darkest times, we can win the battle against despair.

Nerd verdict: Strong but shows weakness in places

Photos: Universal Pictures


Postertext Giveaway

Since many of us here are readers and have book lovers in our lives, we’re probably all scrambling for unique bookish gift ideas. This is why I’m excited to host this giveaway from Postertext. According to its website, the company consists of “avid readers and passionate artists who all work together intimately to create the perfect intersection between art and literature.”

The results? Posters made entirely of text from classic novels. (Contemporary ones are coming soon). Here’s a sample:




F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY


William Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET

Lucy Maud Montgomery's ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES



Cool, right? If you’d like to win a poster of your choice (click here to see all available titles and their dimensions), leave a comment about one of your favorite books of all time—classic or contemporary—and what the center image would be if it were made into a poster. For example, one of my favorite books is Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and I’d want the poster to depict the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

Giveaway ends Dec. 24, 9 p.m. PST. For US residents only. The poster won’t come before Christmas but it’d still be a great gift for any occasion.

Winners will have 48 hours after notification to claim the prize before an alternate winner is chosen. Good luck!



Every year for Shelf Awareness for Readers, I review a couple of coffee-table books for the holidays. I received two beautiful ones this year that I think movie lovers on your gift list would appreciate. I really did watch Gone with the Wind again after reading all the behind-the-scenes stories.

These reviews originally appeared in Shelf Awareness and are republished here with permission.

The Making of Gone with the Wind by Steve Wilson

making of gone with the windCommemorating the 75th anniversary of the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, this gorgeous treasure trove by Steve Wilson showcases more than 600 items from producer David O. Selznick’s archives.

These items, also on exhibit at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin (where Wilson is curator of the film collection), include storyboards, costume sketches, stills from the screen tests of the top contenders for Scarlett O’Hara, on-set photos, and confidential memos from the creative minds behind the movie.

Among the most fascinating artifacts is the seven-page edict from the Hays Office (Hollywood’s censors), with notes about which elements were objectionable (e.g., painful childbirth, use of the N word by “white people”) and needed to be toned down or eliminated. Fans of the classic film will see it again with new eyes after reading this book, and those who haven’t experienced it will want to settle in for a viewing.

Amazon | IndieBound

Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth Century Fox Archive by Angela Cartwright and Tom McLaren

styling the starsAngela Cartwright, who played Brigitta von Trapp in The Sound of Music, grew up on movie sets and was fascinated by the way actors transformed into their characters. She and coauthor Tom McLaren delved into the Twentieth Century Fox archives and found negatives of long-forgotten continuity photos from movies made from the late 1920s to the early 1970s.

Continuity photos are taken on sets to document the makeup, hairstyle and wardrobe of every actor in every scene so that the looks can be recreated at a later time. Because the shots in Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth Century Fox Archive are not publicity stills, the actors are more unguarded than carefully posed. Marlon Brando smiles with sand and fake blood on his face, and Doris Day pretends to be grumpy in a robe and pajamas. The book also covers little-known facts (Olivia de Havilland had to wear her own clothes in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte). Classic-movie lovers will enjoy these glimpses of stars in the process of creating some of their iconic roles.

Amazon | IndieBound


Nerdy Special List 2014 Favorites Edition

Hope you’re enjoying the season and not getting stressed out by all the things you have to do to be ready for the holidays. I live in denial and then do everything the night before people visit, and by “everything” I mean hide all my clutter in the hall closet and string DO NOT CROSS crime-scene tape across the door.

One thing I like doing at the end of the year is to reflect on my top reads. My personal list will go up later; this one consists of favorites from my contributors to the Nerdy Special List.

This month, I’d like to welcome a new blogger to the NSL, Lauren from Malcolm Avenue Review. Lauren is a discerning, insightful, witty reviewer—visit her site to see for yourself. I am lucky to have her on board.

I asked each blogger to recommend an outstanding book from this year. Here’s what they said.

Jen from Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson
wait for signEach year at the holidays, Craig Johnson has sent out a short story to his mailing list as a gift. In addition, a couple others have been released as e-books between his yearly novel publications. This year, all of those short stories plus one brand new story—twelve tales in total—were brought together in the collection Wait for Signs.

For longtime fans of the series, or someone who has *gulp* never read Craig Johnson’s work, this is a prize little collection. All the humor, incredible characters, and sense of place are present in little snippets of Absaroka life. Fans of the series will learn more about Walt’s life to complement what you know about the beloved sheriff from the novels. Those who know nothing about the Walt Longmire books will get a taste for Johnson’s style and the world he’s created in his mega-popular series.

While this is a great book to read in short bursts, if you’re like me, you’ll sit down to read one or two and end up reading the whole thing. But that’s OK, because these stories are keepers and worth reading over and over. I think it’s going to become a holiday tradition with me. As a side note, there is also a wonderful audiobook version of this collection from Recorded Books, read by the series narrator, George Guidall.

Erin from In Real Life:

The Wolf in Winter by John Connolly

wolf in winterJohn Connolly peels back the idyllic veneer of fictional town Prosperous, Maine, to reveal a darkness forged in history and cultivated through the evil that dwells in the human heart. The death of a homeless man and his daughter’s disappearance leads private investigator Charlie Parker (and his motley band of helpers) to Prosperous, where the town’s leaders—those who guard its secrets—will go to any length to protect what they treasure.

While Charlie Parker is as flawed a hero as has ever been committed to the page and is beset with enough tragedy to make a weaker man crumble, he continues to persevere, driven by forces of this world and beyond it. In The Wolf in Winter, Connolly also addresses numerous modern American social issues, presenting the results of pervasive attitudes and common actions in the most dramatic light possible. The result is a story that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Lauren from Malcolm Avenue Review:

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

smoke gets in your eyesThe author became preoccupied with death at the age of 8 after witnessing a horrific accident. Years later, a young and somewhat aimless Doughty took a job running the cremation machines (“retorts”) at a Northern California funeral home. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is Doughty’s detailed account of that job and how it impacted her views on and relationship with death and dying. Ultimately, Doughty continued her education in mortuary science, not to take it on as her profession per se, but in an attempt to understand and bring change to the way Americans have come to deal with (i.e., shield ourselves from) death and death practices. Whip-smart, wickedly funny, and a natural storyteller, Doughty turns what could be a dry and morbid tale into a fascinating and enlightening must-read.

Note: To those who think the subject matter may be too gruesome, this book is for you. Why we’ve come to see the process of dying as something grotesque and to be avoided at all costs, all while getting further astray from “natural” death with our practices of embalming and makeup and yes, even cremation, is at the heart of this story. Also, never fear—although the book gets specific about body preparation and cremation, there was only one total grossout scene.

From PCN:

station elevenA stage actor drops dead during a production of King Lear. Hours after that, the world begins to end. A  virus called the Georgia Flu, which makes Ebola look like a 24-hour bug, spreads quickly and wipes out most of Earth’s population within days. The story jumps back and forth in time, including to fifteen years after this event, to show how the fates of five central characters are intertwined.

Emily St. John Mandel’s National Book Award finalist is a moving meditation on love, life, and the value of art in a world where everything is in ruins. How hard do you fight for art when it’s a struggle to find food and drinking water? The subtlety in the writing is what makes this novel so heart-aching; Mandel doesn’t overexplain or manipulate, allowing readers to fill in the horror and grief the characters experience. Don’t be put off by the dystopian or sci-fi label if you’re not a fan of either genre. Read this if you just like beautiful language that soars and a story that haunts you.


This year, Penguin Random House will donate a book to Save the Children for every book you give (up to 25,000). All you have to do is post on Facebook or Twitter what book(s) you’ll be giving, accompanied by the #giveabook hashtag. I’d too like to hear which titles you plan on gifting so let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for good book suggestions!


Movie Review: STILL ALICE

still aliceBased on Lisa Genova’s 2009 novel of the same name, Still Alice (limited release, Dec. 5) is about a college professor dealing with early onset Alzheimer’s. The film takes viewers along on the agonizing journey as the disease consumes Alice’s once brilliant mind.

In the book Alice is a psychology professor at Harvard, but in the movie, she’s a linguistics professor at Columbia. The change gives Alice’s plight an ironically cruel twist—after an impressive career as an expert on words, she has to struggle to come up with even simple ones.

Julianne Moore is sublime as Alice, deftly handling the transition from the confident professional woman to someone who has to “learn to lose.” Moore gives subtle cues to when Alice is having a lost moment—her eyes become blank or her face goes slack—and it’s even more moving when she tries to cover it up. Cowriters/-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland allow the tragedy to unfold without trying to milk it.

Alec Baldwin gives able support as Alice’s husband, but Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart are cold and lackluster, respectively, as Alice’s daughters. They both seem to love Alice but it’s not clear why the sisters aren’t kind to each other. Their sniping is tiresome. Stewart’s habit of constantly touching her hair and face is also distracting.

But Still Alice is Moore’s movie. The story might be a gut kicker but she’s captivating in every scene. Her performance is anything but forgettable.

Nerd verdict: Memorable Moore

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics