Monthly Archives

November 2015

Holiday Binge-Watching

I hope you all enjoyed your holiday weekend (if you celebrated Thanksgiving). It was a much needed break for me. Every day when I woke, Mr. PCN would ask, “What would you like to do today?” and my answer was always the same: “Attain pure sloth.” I crushed this goal. Mr. PCN pointed out the bar was pretty low, if not on the ground, but remaining immobile for as long as I did on the couch is an art form not everyone understands.

Clearing my schedule—besides attending two Thanksgiving dinners—gave me plenty of time to binge-watch two new series, one from Amazon and the other from Netflix. Below are my thoughts.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

man-in-the-high-castle

Alexa Davalos

Amazon’s new drama, based on Philip K. Dick’s book and set in 1962, depicts an alternate universe in which Americans lost World War II. The Germans govern the East Coast, called the Greater Nazi Reich, while the West Coast is named Japanese Pacific States, with some areas in between remaining a neutral zone.

The mysterious titular man compels a resistance group to smuggle films to him that show the Allies winning the war, giving hope to the oppressed. Resistance members are pursued by spies and yakuza and kempeitai (Japanese military police) and Nazis.

The series is gripping, suspenseful, moodily shot—it’s extremely unsettling to see the swastika on the American flag and arm bands—and well-acted. Alexa Davalos, whom I’ve been a fan of from her stint on the Buffy spin-off Angel, stars as Juliana Crain, who gets drawn into the resistance when her sister shoves a can of film at her one night while running away from the kempeitai. (Juliana’s last name is too obvious for me, since it’s a homophone for crane, a Japanese symbol of longevity and good luck. In the book she has a different last name.)

A standout supporting actor is Joel de la Fuente as Chief Inspector Kido of the kempeitai. He mostly remains very still but oozes menace from every pore.

The story has many plot holes and the ending leaves a lot of questions unresolved, but High Castle has high-quality production values and deserves a look.

Nerd verdict: Provocative High Castle

 

Master of None (Netflix)

master of none

Aziz Ansari & Noël Wells

Aziz Ansari cocreated, stars in, cowrote and directed some of the episodes of this Seinfeld-like half-hour comedy. Ansari plays Dev, an actor in NYC mostly known for his commercials who’s starting to land movie roles. When not working, he hangs out with his buddies, often in restaurants, talking about relationships—with friends, parents, and significant others.

Dev may seem like a shallow dude but the writing is sharp, making funny, keen observations about show business (the audition scenes are hilariously true to life), thirtysomething angst, and our social-media-obsessed culture.

One of the most poignant episodes is titled “Parents,” which depicts Dev and his Chinese friend Brian taking their immigrant parents for granted, then slowly coming to appreciate the sacrifices their parents made to give Dev and Brian better lives in America. It’s an extra sweet touch to have Ansari’s real parents play Dev’s parents.

Noël Wells winningly portrays Dev’s girlfriend, Rachel, a cool girl who seems too good for him, but their chemistry is so adorable she’s also just right for him. I’m hoping for a season two so we can see where Dev’s and Rachel’s adventures take them.

Nerd verdict: Master drops truth bombs about life

What did you watch/read over the weekend?

Photos: Davalos/Amazon Studios; Ansari & Wells/Netflix

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Mini Movie Reviews: Biopic Edition

Like last year, many of this year’s batch of award-baiting movies are based on real people or stories. I’m not a big fan of this genre because unless you know very little about the subjects, it’s hard to be surprised by what’s on screen. Plus, many biopics come across like a checklist: in this year, this event occurred, and then in another year, this other thing happened, etc.

That’s not to say the results are always boring, hence my varying thoughts on the biopics I saw recently.

 

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Trumbo

Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, the novelist and screenwriter who was blacklisted and imprisoned for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but nevertheless managed to win two Oscars—for Roman Holiday and The Brave One—under an assumed name.

This is standard biopic fare, with nothing to qualify it as exceptional. Cranston is solid, Helen Mirren doesn’t do anything as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper we haven’t seen from her, and the ever luminous Diane Lane is wasted as Trumbo’s patient wife, Cleo.

Memorable performances come from Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, torn by loyalty to his friend Trumbo and his need to preserve his career, and Dean O’Gorman, whose resemblance to the young Kirk Douglas is so startling, I thought Mr. Douglas had Benjamin Buttoned to be in this movie.

Reasons for seeing it: To be reminded of how mass hysteria and government-dictated imprisonment of US citizens for their political views is a very bad idea.

 

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs

Based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of the Apple cofounder, boosted by Aaron Sorkin’s script and Michael Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance in the title role, Steve Jobs is a surprisingly riveting portrait of the complicated man behind the popular computers and mobile devices.

As with all Sorkin-written movies, this is very talky, but the dialogue is sharp, often cutting straight to blunt truths, and nimbly delivered by the cast. When Jobs is asked why he never approached his biological father despite knowing the man’s identity, he replies, “Because he’d probably find some reason to sue me.”

Fassbender is a sure best-actor contender for simultaneously displaying the brilliance and vulnerability, arrogance and fear, triumphs and frustrations, confidence and regret that shaped the mercurial Jobs. Even when Jobs is being a jerk, I oddly found myself rooting for him because he’s simply more dynamic than anyone else on screen.

Kate Winslet supports Fassbender well as Apple’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, the only person who seemingly had the balls to stand up to Jobs. Michael Stuhlbarg shows up here, too, once again doing subtly effective work as another real-life person—original Apple team member Andy Herztfeld—struggling with conflicting loyalties.

Reasons for seeing it: Fassbender’s commanding performance, strong writing from Sorkin, learning about the development of iconic Apple products.

 

Focus Features

Focus Features

The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander can count on Oscar nominations for their work as married artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. With Gerda’s support, Eina became the first person to undergo gender-reassignment operations, transitioning into Lili Elbe.

I don’t think Redmayne will win again this year, though. Like he did as Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything, the actor fully immerses himself in the dual role of Einar/Lili, but he’s less effective here. Whereas with Hawking, the actor manages to show the man’s internal life while remaining mostly immobile, Redmayne’s Lili employs a lot of feminine mannerisms and hand gestures that make his performance seem more about the external than internal. Vikander, on the other hand, is raw and hearttbreaking as a woman who can’t stop loving her husband, even after Einar kills him off so Lili can live.

Reasons for seeing it: Vikander’s star-making performance, to better understand the internal and external struggles of a transgendered person.

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Mini Movie Reviews: SPECTRE and BROOKLYN

Movie awards season is in full swing, so I’ve been attending multiple screenings a week. Last week I saw four movies, and this week will try to screen three. As much as I’d like to write detailed reviews, I can’t keep up due to work and sleep. Plus, laziness. So I’ll be posting shorter reviews of the movies I see in the next couple months, starting with these two.

Spectre

SPECTREDirector Sam Mendes’s second James Bond outing and star Daniel Craig’s fourth improved upon the last two films in the franchise to become my favorite with Craig after Casino Royale. I chose to know nothing about the plot before viewing, just plunked myself into a theater seat, and said, “All right, entertain me.” And it did.

The opening sequence is usually among the most thrilling, and this one, set in Mexico City during Día de los Muertos, had me on the edge of my seat. The movie contains several other memorable set pieces involving helos, trains, boats, and fancy sports cars. The action isn’t Michael Bay-ish, meaning it’s not mindless destruction. There’s often an emotional undercurrent to the most explosive scenes, because Bond is trying to save someone’s life or exact revenge.

Craig is ultra cool, tearing across the screen with confidence. His leonine grace makes him equally suave in a tux and dangerous in a fight. This time out, he gets to play some of Bond’s personal backstory, making 007 more accessible than usual.

Despite much press calling her a Bond woman, Monica Bellucci isn’t the female lead. It’s good to see her on screen, alluring as ever, but she has only one scene. Léa Seydoux is the true Bond girl, one who’s believable as a doctor and doesn’t turn into a screaming mess when things get rough. The actress’s most effective features are her expressive eyes, which can go from steely to vulnerable and back again in .02 seconds.

Christoph Waltz is creepy as the villain, but we’ve witnessed this performance before. (See: Inglourious Basterds or any of his 93 other movies in which he plays a baddie.) Andrew Scott is also very good as a jerk; fans of BBC’s Sherlock might recognize him as Moriarty.

Even as Mendes continues to move the franchise forward, he pays homage to past Bond films by including fun references to iconic elements such as a certain white kitty, the classic Aston Martin, and a hulking, hard-to-kill thug who calls to mind Richard Kiel’s Jaws. As for Sam Smith’s rendition of the title song, the only thing I can remember about it is thinking, “Wow, dude can sing high.”

Nerd verdict: Satisfying Spectre

******

Brooklyn

brooklynSaoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, an Irish lass in the 1950s who’s sent to Brooklyn, NY, by her older sister due to a lack of career opportunities for young women in their hometown. With the help of a Catholic priest, Eilis gets a job in a high-end department store while going to school to study bookkeeping.

She also starts seeing an Italian boy named Tony and life looks good—until a sudden death calls her back to Ireland. While there, she meets another young man who makes her wonder whether her life belongs in her home country or across the ocean in America.

The story, from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, sounds simple, but the movie is highly affecting (while containing more than a few laughs). Sobs were heard throughout in the audience, and some of them might’ve come from me.

During the post-movie Q&A, director John Crowley said he wanted the adaptation, penned by Nick Hornby, to be emotional but not sentimental, and he accomplished his goal. He had able help from Ronan, showing a much softer side than she had with past characters, and Emory Cohen as Tony, whose chemistry with Ronan is palpable and sweet.

The supporting cast, including Domhnall Gleeson as Jim, the third point in the love triangle; Julie Walters as a boardinghouse’s den mother; and Jim Broadbent as the priest who watches over Eilis; is rock solid. The lush cinematography and period costumes made me nostalgic for a time when the world seemed more beautiful and less complicated.

Nerd verdict: Moving Brooklyn

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Nerdy Special List November 2015

Happy November! Hope everyone had a fun Halloween weekend. I dressed up as Princess Leia. Does that surprise anyone? Not slave Leia but the I’m-gonna-keep-my-bits-warm Hoth version.

From here on out, we might as well coast into the holidays. But we aren’t done with this year’s selection of good books. Here are the new releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Woman With a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street Books, November 10)

woman-with-blue-pencilIt feels rare these days to read a book and feel like you’ve experienced something genuinely unique. Woman With a Blue Pencil is that rarity for me. Gordon McAlpine imagines the life of a character who’s been left on the cutting room floor. Sam Sumida is Takumi Sato’s Japanese-American protagonist who simply came into existence at the wrong time.

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sato’s publisher didn’t think a Japanese-American hero would be a commercial hit. So Sumida was replaced. Woman With a Blue Pencil intricately weaves together the revised novel, Sumida’s survival following his expulsion from the book, and letters from Sato’s editor—the woman with a blue pencil. Chock full of exciting action, brilliant plot twists, and timeless social commentary, Woman With a Blue Pencil is an exceptional treat.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, November 3rd)

secret-life-of-anna-blancJennifer Kincheloe’s debut is hilariously entertaining. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Anna Blanc is an intelligent, sheltered, and restless young socialite who has a propensity to worm her way into trouble. So much so that her father has hired a constant chaperone to keep Anna out of questionable situations and protect her reputation.

But Anna’s rascally ways outsmart even her father. She bribes the unscrupulous chaperone and adopts the alias Anna Holmes in order to fulfill her dream of being a detective—she takes a position as a police matron with the Los Angeles Police Department.

While she’s supposed to be typing reports and removing small children from whorehouses, Anna sets out to find a rapist and solve a serial murder case the department seems to be hiding. Anna is very smart when it comes to logic and deduction. But the street smarts and common sense are not so abundant.

Kincheloe does a wonderful job of balancing those two qualities so that Anna comes off authentically awkward and empathetic. Her moxie is admirable and her compassion endearing. The dialogue is excellent, and Kincheloe’s depiction of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century is so realistic, it’s often palpable, sometimes even rancid with the smell of manure. The romantic element is predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. I was sad to turn the last page.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned From a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell (Ballantine, October 27, moved up from November 5)

penguin lessonsThis utterly charming memoir helped me waddle out of a severe reading rut. In the mid-1970s, author Michell, then 23, left his native England for a position at an Argentinian boarding school. On a relaxing weekend jaunt to Uruguay, he comes across the horrific results of an oil spill: a large group of dead beached penguins. When one mighty little penguin shows signs of life, Michell has no choice but to rescue the plucky fellow, who he (quite hilariously) smuggles back to Argentina and ultimately names Juan Salvado.

If you’re given to anthropomorphizing, you’re going to love this book. If you’re not, I dare you to read this gem and not come away with a different feeling and understanding about the minds and emotions of animals. Juan Salvado is a sheer delight—to Michell, his students, his cleaning lady, school staff, and, I’m betting, most readers.

At turns warm and laugh-out-loud funny (I literally did lol at Michell’s efforts to clean the bird in the posh Uruguayan apartment he was using), The Penguin Lessons also provides interesting insight into Argentina and its people in the 1970s. A slim volume at just 240 pages, this would be a great holiday gift for the animal lover on your list.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay (Berkeley Prime Crime, November 3)

likely storyThis is the sixth in Jenn McKinlay’s Library Lover’s Mystery series and the first to be published in hardcover. As a librarian, it’s no surprise I love this series.

A Likely Story takes place on the coast of Connecticut in a small town, and our heroine is Lindsey Norris, librarian and director of the Briar Creek Public Library. She and one of her suitors, Sully, take a water taxi out to a local island to deliver books to two older men who are brothers. When Lindsey and Sully aren’t met at the dock, they venture up to the Rosens’ house, only to find one brother missing and one brother murdered.

Things are resolved in interesting and satisfying ways, with a bit of a twist at the end, and readers should be happy with how the characters are moving forward with their lives.

From PCN:

The Promise by Robert Crais (Putnam, November 10)

the promiseLongtime Craisies have been impatiently awaiting this new entry in the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, and they’re in for a treat. Elvis is hired to look for a missing woman, and immediately becomes embroiled in a case that might involve Al-Qaeda. Luckily he has a formidable team by his side: his partner Joe Pike, mercenary Jon Stone, LAPD officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie (the last two are from Crais’s standalone novel Suspect).

Look for my full review in Shelf Awareness for Readers later this month, as well as additional coverage here of Crais’s first novel in almost three years.

Which books are you looking forward to this month?

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