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December 2016

Capsule Movie Reviews: FENCES, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, SING, and HIDDEN FIGURES

The holidays are upon us and the movies are coming out fast and furious, competing for your dollars. Since you’re probably doing last-minute shopping and have no time for full reviews, I’ll keep my comments concise for the following batch of films. (For reviews of Rogue One, La La Land, Jackie, and others, click on the titles,)

Fences

fencesDenzel Washington directs as well as stars in this movie version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play about a black man in the 1950s who takes out his frustrations about life and career on his family.

No doubt the acting is strong, with Viola Davis a front runner to win the best supporting actress Oscar, but Washington’s performance is too over the top for me (they both won Tonys in 2010 for playing the same roles on Broadway).

The movie looks like a play that was filmed instead of a true adaptation, i.e. it’s static with mostly one location and lots of monologues. What works on stage is too big and presentational for a more intimate medium. It should’ve been opened up more but instead it feels, well, fenced in.

20th Century Women

20thcenturywomenMike Mills based 2010’s Beginners on his dad and directed Christopher Plummer all the way to an Oscar for the role. With 20th Century Women, Mills tells the story of his mother, played by the radiant Annette Bening.

Dorothea is an earthy single mom raising her teenage son, Jamie, in 1979 Southern California. She asks for parenting input from the man (Billy Crudup) renovating her house, a female boarder (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s best childhood friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), on whom Jamie has a not-so-secret crush.

These characters form an unusual family unit, each with his/her own story that’s both funny and sad, but the film is a showcase for Bening, whose every line and emotional note rings true.

Sing

sing-pigsThe premise: a koala bear is determined to save his crumbling theater by holding a singing competition. Contestants include pigs in sequins, a piano-playing gorilla, a shy elephant, and a rock ‘n’ roll porcupine.

You don’t have to be a kid or like animation to enjoy this movie. The story line is sparse and characters don’t get deep backstories, but the movie is infectious with its can-do spirit and never-give-up-your-dreams mentality. Kids will be delighted by the funny animals and adults will tap their feet to the soundtrack, which includes singing by stars like Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, and Jennifer Hudson.

Hidden Figures

From L.: Monaé, Henson, Spencer

From L.: Monaé, Henson, Spencer

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monaé play the 3 female black mathematicians who “helped [the US] win the space race,” according to the subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book, from which this movie was adapted.

The racism and sexism these women experienced frustrated the heck out of me, and made me wonder how much more our country could accomplish (and how much faster we could do it) if qualified people are simply given a chance, regardless of skin color or gender.

The story is ultimately inspiring, though, considering all that Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to achieve despite the obstacles in their way. The cast is all good, but Monaé as the confident, sassy Mary is the one with the breakout role. It’s incredible that this is only the singer’s second on-camera acting role (after Moonlight).

Though he has limited screen time, Glen Powell also stands out as John Glenn, one of Katherine’s champions. I hope the real Mr. Glenn got to see how well he was portrayed before he left Earth to explore the next dimension.

Which movies are you excited about this season?

Photos: Fences/Paramount, 20th Century Women/A24, Sing/Universal, Hidden Figures/Fox

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY Spoiler-Free Movie Review

 

rogueone

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. I might be even more spoiler-averse than you are. In fact, that made me miss the first 5 minutes of the movie.

I went to a screening without being told what I’d be seeing, and when Rogue One started, I thought it was only the trailer and refused to watch it. When the “trailer” didn’t end, I was like SHUTUPISTHISTHEACTUALMOVIE?!?!

I’ve been using ninja-level deflecting methods for a year to avoid everything related to this movie so I had no expectations. And ended up thoroughly enjoying myself, whooping with glee several times.

Rogue One has the rebel spirit and enough references to the previous Star Wars movies (the best ones—you know which I mean) to make you feel that nerd’s delight, but it forges its own identity, too. It’s both familiar and different enough so that it doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same ol’ plot points.

Felicity Jones imbues Jyn Erso with heart and spunk, making her an engaging new addition to the cast of characters. After seeing the actress in supporting roles, it’s nice to have her front and center as a strong action heroine, a guise she dons comfortably without having to try too hard.

One of my favorite things was seeing not one but two Asians in significant roles. (I mean no disrespect by not including the actors’ names; if you’ve been avoiding trailers like I did, maybe you don’t want to know ahead of time who they are. I only mention Jones because she’s hard to miss on the poster everywhere.) I’ve been a fan of this franchise for almost 40 years, and I can’t believe it took this long to see people who looked like me playing important characters. Say what you will, but representation absolutely matters. The Force can be with me, too!

This group of rebels is the most diverse bunch so far. While no cast has matched the star power and chemistry of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, Rogue One‘s leads leave their mark.

What else is there to say? This movie isn’t just Disney milking the franchise for all it’s worth. It’s a thrilling adventure that fills in the blanks and melds neatly with what we already know about that galaxy far, far away.

Photo: Disney

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Nerdy Special List December 2016

This month, I asked our illustrious contributors for a December favorite or one from any month this year, as long as it hasn’t appeared on the NSL.

Since you might be looking for gift ideas, how about considering some of these titles? I’ve added suggestions about the perfect recipient(s) for each book.

I’d like to thank Jen, Rory, Erin, Lauren, and Patti for having such excellent taste in books and sharing their recommendations all year long. Though they probably wish to distance themselves from me in public, they make me feel smarter by association.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim (Pegasus Books, December 20)

[Ed.: For the intellectual with exotic tastes, but safe for those who vomit easily.]

boy-escaped-paradiseLast year J.M. Lee blew me away with his English debut, The Investigation. This year he doubled down with The Boy Who Escaped Paradise. Both novels employ the richest of language in complex plot lines about dynamic and multidimensional characters.

Ahn Gil-mo is a young, North Korean math savant with Asperger’s syndrome. He is sent to a prison camp because of his father’s transgressions. While he’s in the camp, he makes a promise to always take care of his best friend, Yeong-ae. It’s this promise that takes him on an Odyssey-like trek across the globe.

Even if you fear numbers and feel nauseous at the mere mention of the word math, be not afraid. This book will win your heart, as it did mine.

It’s an epic adventure, a crime novel, a cultural expose. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise is a sure bet for a satisfying read.

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (Viking, September 13)

[Ed.: For the folks who like ’80s TV and riding motorcycles without helmets because they think they’re badass.]

obvious-factAn Obvious Fact makes for a dozen novels in the Walt Longmire series. And even though Walt is the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America, Craig Johnson still manages to keep the stories fresh and highly entertaining.

With a little Sherlock Holmes, a little Dukes of Hazzard, and a whole lot of motorcycles, Fact centers on a hit-and-run that leaves a man comatose in Hulett, Wyoming, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Walt, his trusted friend Henry Standing Bear, and Absaroka’s wily undersheriff Vic Moretti are on the case even though it’s out of their jurisdiction. There’s plenty of action, laughs and surprises.

Series fans who haven’t grabbed this one yet are in for a wonderful treat, including an introduction to the Lola. If you’re new to the series, I encourage you to start back at the beginning with A Cold Dish.

Any of the books can be read on their own and enjoyed, but Johnson has built a community with his characters and their relationships have evolved, especially over the last six books. To truly appreciate that quality, you want to grow along with the Absaroka gang. It’s a fabulous journey.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Flatiron Books, October 4)

[Ed.: For your friends in prison who are always trying to bust out.]

guineveresSarah Domet’s debut novel takes its name from the four protagonists, all named Guinevere and all abandoned at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent.

Vere, Win, Ginny, and Gwen are desperate to escape their circumstances and hatch a plan to do so during a parade in a float. When that fails, the girls are sentenced to work in the convent’s sick ward, where they hatch yet another plan, this one involving comatose soldiers.

Each Guinevere has her own voice, though we hear most from Vere. Woven into the girls’ tales are the stories of the lives of various female saints. The nuns generally remain in the background, but are well drawn and not stereotypically Catholic, which I greatly appreciated. The nuns, though strict, genuinely care for the girls.

Rather than a novel about faith, Domet’s debut is instead a wonderful coming-of-age tale. It’s a subtle, complex novel depicting the inner lives of teenage girls, and their search for home and family—a winning combination with lovely writing. Don’t miss it!

From Erin at In Real Life:

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad, October 6)

[Ed.: For the insomniac who likes to be so scared by books that s/he might need to wear a diaper. But not Erin. She can handle scary stuff like a boss.]

never-aloneWhen it comes to stories that make me—often literally—perch on the edge of my seat, I know I can count on Elizabeth Haynes. Her latest is no exception, and it is one of the best books I read in 2016.

Sarah Carpenter lives in a remote part of Yorkshire, and she hasn’t had an especially easy time of things. She finds herself alone after her husband dies and her grown kids move out, so she’s pleased when an old friend, Aiden Beck, shows up needing a place to stay for a while.

Sarah is well able to look after herself and is no shrinking violet, but her kids, friends, and friends of her kids are all concerned about Aiden’s presence, for markedly different reasons. And they might be right to be…but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.

Elizabeth Haynes has an extraordinary ability to pull readers right into her tales. I started reading her books when our very own PCN reviewed Into the Darkest Corner back in 2012. (Funny side note: The first time I met Elizabeth at a book event in England, I asked her to sign a book for PCN. When I told her that PCN had to stand in the hall to finish reading it, Elizabeth exclaimed, “I loved that review! It was one of my favorites!”)

Never Alone is spooky and creepy and captivating. Page-turner? Check. Fascinating? Absolutely.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Kill the Next One by Federico Axat, translated by David Frye (Mulholland Books, December 13)

kill-next-one[Ed.: For the uncle you like to make crazy by gaslighting him.]

Argentinian author Federico Axat’s US debut is a spectacular mind-meld of a psychological thriller, and it’s no surprise that Kill the Next One has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Ted McKay wants to commit suicide after discovering he has a brain tumor, but he’s interrupted, gun to his head, by an insistent knock at his door. The complete stranger on his doorstep makes Ted an offer he can’t refuse: kill two men, one who deserves to die and one who wants to die. In return, someone will kill Ted so he can die a heroic victim rather than by his own hand.

As Ted tries to follow through with the secret suicide club plan, his reality becomes as mixed up as a kaleidoscope. It’s unclear what is real (is a deranged possum really following him around?), who is telling the truth, how Ted was chosen and why.

As his sanity becomes more questionable, memories start pushing to the forefront of his mind, bringing frightening clarity. Axat brilliantly creates an environment permeated by doubt and one can’t help but begin to question reality on a larger scale. How do we know what’s real and who to trust?

The story is chilling, but Axat infuses it with humanity while maintaining the nightmarish atmosphere. Kill the Next One is thrilling perfection.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

city-bakers-guideThe City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller 

[Ed.: For the pyromaniac pastry lover, or your third cousin once removed.]

Pastry chef Olivia Rawlings accidentally sets a fire in the club where she works in Boston, and escapes from it all by moving near her best friend in Guthrie, Vermont. Olivia gets a job at an inn called the Sugar Maple Inn, concocting wonderful desserts as she adjusts to small-town life.

Her transition starts a bit roughly, but as she meets people and tries different activities, it becomes apparent that Guthrie is quite possibly where she’s meant to be.

I am in love with books where people start over and find the perfect new place for themselves or a new career. I loved being with Olivia and most of the people in Guthrie. Since I read it, I have thought about it often. This is one of my favorite books of 2016!

From PCN:

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (Touchstone, November 15)

9781501117206_p0_v8_s192x300[For the bathrobe-wearing, diminutive aunt who always fights you for the last drumstick and kills at drunk karaoke.]

Anna Kendrick is hilarious in movies, on talk shows, and Twitter, so it’s no surprise she’s also winning in book form. My full review is at Shelf Awareness, and part of what I said was “her breezy tone and accounts of social awkwardness make her seem like a friend you’d love to hang with…if she weren’t too lazy to clean her house and invite you over.”

Despite having been nominated for a Tony and an Oscar and working with celebs like George Clooney, Kendrick lives in sweatpants, fails at adulting, and owns her nerdiness—how could I not be charmed? I think you will be, too.

Are you giving or asking for books this season? What’s on your list?

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Movie Review: LA LA LAND

la-la-land

Ohhh, what can I say about La La Land? If you’ve seen the trailer or photos, you probably already think it looks dreamy. I can confirm that it is. But with one foot in reality, too.

The premise is simple: struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) meets struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles, they bond over their artistic aspirations, and we see where they go from there, both in life and their careers.

The simple concept doesn’t mean nothing happens; these two go through their ups and downs. Emma Stone makes you laugh in the awkward audition situations, but we also feel her frustration and self-doubt: what if she isn’t good enough to make it? How do we know when to give up?

Gosling, via piano lessons, convincingly plays the beautiful, melancholy original pieces composed by Justin Hurwitz. The leads have proven they have chemistry in two previous movies together, but I think it’s most heartfelt here.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen by writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) but I’m ready to call him an auteur, a word I don’t use often. His is a singular vision; you won’t see another movie like La La Land this year. It’s at once nostalgic and modern. The heightened reality is a feast for the eyes, the music a balm for the soul, the emotions earned. I don’t even like musicals and I swooned over the musical numbers. It’s not just a movie but an experience.

As magical as it is, La La Land never crosses into saccharine territory and doesn’t forget real life isn’t perfect. It just encourages you to dream, and lets you know you’re not alone.

Photo: Lionsgate

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Movie Review: JACKIE

 

jackie

Jackie Kennedy is such an iconic figure, what hasn’t already been said about her? Well, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie tries to give us a different portrait of her by imagining how she was in the private moments immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination.

The framing device is Mrs. Kennedy sitting down to an interview with a Life magazine reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The journalist is unnamed in the movie but is supposedly based on Theodore White.) The agreement is that she’d have final approval of the article.

Thus, we see Jackie chain-smoking through it all, saying whatever she wants no matter how raw, knowing she could strike it later.

What results is a glimpse of a coarser (but only a little) side behind the perfect facade of one of the classiest, most revered women in US history. In Natalie Portman’s hands, the private Jackie is someone who’s both more fragile and steelier than her public image.

Initially it’s a bit jarring to see Portman doing the finishing-school mannerisms and talking in Jackie’s polite breathy voice; I saw a famous actress doing an impression of someone even more famous. I started wondering if a lesser known actress would’ve been able to disappear more into the part.

But as Portman delves deeper, showing the pressures on a woman needing to grieve but also having to be a mother to two young children while planning a funeral worthy of her presidential husband, she displays mettle and emotional layers, for which the actress will likely get an Oscar nomination.

Other well-known actors show up to play real people, most notably Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. The actor is fine but is too old (he’s 45 to RFK’s 38 at the time) and doesn’t look at all like Bobby so he’s a curious choice. Crudup mostly just sits opposite Portman looking frustrated because the journalist can’t include the juiciest tidbits in his article.

But Jackie isn’t about anyone else except the titular person and the actress who plays her. I have no idea what our former first lady was really like, but seeing her as less than perfect doesn’t tarnish her image. It makes her more human.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

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