The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Women, Armed Part II

And now she appears on John Scalzi's blog! 

Ms. Amy Bai and her Sword are taking the world by storm...

Read about her formation of hero(in)es here

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Apologies & Oscars

An apology, Gentle Readers, for my absence.  Between the holidays and the beginning of the new semester here at Very Small College, I have been a busy little bee.  Also, I haven’t read much that was worth discussing--mainly fluff.  Mindless fare which is fine for lulling me to sleep at night, ‘cuddled doon’ in my fleece sheets and goosedown comforter.  It’s not great, however, for semi-intelligent discussion with nebulous blog-readers.  I have been thinking of you, however, and so I dispense with the sorries and jump right into one of my favorite times of year: Oscar Season.

I am back to enjoying it in a modest way, after some years of burnout following my time at Very Distinguished University in the heart of Entertainmentland.  So I am attempting to see all the major contenders, and I shall try to redeem myself in my friend Danny’s Oscar pool (one year I got all the winners wrong.  ALL OF THEM.  He’s offered to start an anti-award with my name on it.  Oh, the shame).  I just wish this weren’t the year of White Man Problems.  A little diversity, please.  So let's begin with the one nod to diversity, shall we?

1) Selma.  It's really good.  It is not the Best Picture of the year, but it is pretty damn solid.  I am unconvinced that it is a great film, as such, but it is an important film, and certainly one that I hope makes its way into high school curricula across the nation (regardless of whether the movie wasn't nice enough to white people in power...REALLY?).   The march-cum-riot is heartbreaking and visceral, as it should be.  It's not needlessly gory, but it doesn't pull any punches, and the majority of the violence feels emotional, rather than the physical violence we've become immune to in films. 
As a movie, it has some problems.  I took issue with the sound, of all things.  There is one particular moment near the end, during the triumphant march (really, do I need to yell “Spoiler alert?”  It’s history, people!), when you see the actors singing “We Shall Overcome.”  But it’s overdubbed by a reedy modern folk song.  That’s not what I wanted to hear; I wanted a cacophony of voices joining together in recognition of a moment.  The music I wanted came at the end of the credits, and it’s a recording from the Smithsonian of the Selma workers singing together.  It’s scratchy, and it’s off-key-ish, and it’s authentic and very moving.  That’s the music I want to see over black and white footage of the march, not something designed to play on radio. 
I wasn’t crazy about some of the director’s choices, but overall it’s very good.  David Oyelowo is excellent, and I would rather have seen him nominated for Best Actor than the film up for Best Picture.  He’s bulked up a bit to play MLKJr, but if you like 'em a little slimmer, he’s incredibly foxy in Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It (terrible film, BTW).   His MLK has a lot going on behind his eyes, and he truly owns the quiet moments of the film. 
One of the movie's strongest points was its emphasis on the politics behind the march.  People in power kept pushing MLK to broker a deal, to give something in order to gain support, to meet “The Man” halfway.  And the refusal to do so was impressive; his non-violence movement was already working with so little, the film made you recognize the insult of being asked to give something up when nothing is being accorded to the movement in the first place (does that run-on make sense?).  These people can't play give and take: they have nothing left to give.  It's a new way (for me) to look at the specific politics of this one moment, and I found it thought-provoking.

2) The Imitation GameA better film, overall, as a film, than Selma.  Guess which one I think more people should see, however?   Sorry, Sexyman Cumberpants.
World War II.  Bletchley Park, England.  A gathering of brilliant men convene to attack Enigma, the unbreakable cipher the Germans are using to encode their communications.  Enter Alan Turing, antisocial (likely autistic) mathematical genius who invents the first computer to break the code and win the war.  For a movie about a bunch of guys doing puzzles and sitting in an office failing to break a code, it's quite a riveting movie.  I held my breath waiting for a computer to finish its calculations; that’s impressive direction. 
The cast is fantastic, especially the young man playing adolescent Alan Turing, Alex Lawther.  He's really quite extraordinary.  And don't get me started on Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I adore.  The film is tightly plotted, builds some nice tension, and the denouement of Turing's career is heartbreaking.  I left the movie just muttering "WOW, that was good."

3) Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).  I’m still processing this one.  Part of me adores it.  It’s a smart, funny Michael Keaton as a Hollywood superhero has-been (and I love that the original Batman is playing down-at-heels Birdman) and his attempt to re-invigorate his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story.  Needless to say, it all goes to hell.   
Cue conversations about theatre vs. film, artifice vs. art, relevance vs. tradition, being vs. seeming, etc., etc., etc.  Plus, Edward Norton plays the most obnoxious method actor/asshole in existence.  Can we please just give him the Supporting Actor statue now?  He’s GENIUS. 
But then there’s this odd layer of magical realism, or imagination, or psychosis, or something, and I’m just not sure it works.  Keaton’s character is telekinetic, and can fly, and hears the voice of his Birdman alter-ego in his head, and it’s  I would get really wrapped up in the drama of the characters, and then something magical would happen, and I would think “Oh, right.  We’re doing that here, too.”  I may have rolled my eyes at the screen once or twice.  A week after watching the film, I liked the magic a bit more, but it was vaguely irritating in the theatre...It is, however, really interesting.  And the acting is superb. 
Nota bene: Pop a Dramamine if you get easily motion-sick.  The film is practically all one take, and the camera swoops beautifully around and between the actors, only enhancing the claustrophobic feeling of backstage. It's a technically impressive feat, and really quite cool.  But it can be a little queasy-making if you have a soft tummy.

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I know that Wes Anderson is supposed to be the disaffected voice of my generation, etc., etc. 
Sometimes he’s great and I love him (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket). And sometimes he’s twee and irritating and I want to punch him in the face (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom).  But oh my Lord, I love Grand Budapest!  I adore the sets, the costumes, the actors, the story, the dialogue, the weird kitschy fun of it.  It manages to be ridiculous and crazy and screwball and still be soulful and sad and moving.  That's a helluva balancing act to pull off.  I just love this movie.  And it’s one of the few out on demand (and HBO), so if you haven’t seen it yet, steal someone's HBOGo password!

5)  The Theory of Everything.  This Oscar Season is my year for oddly sexy British male eye-candy.  Sexyman Cumberpants, Ralph Fiennes, David Oyelowo, and now Eddie Redmayne.  Granted, not so much with the sexy as Stephen Hawking, but O for the awards show pictures! OK, now that my ovaries are under control (seriously, all I need to make it perfect is Tom Hiddleston, Jason Statham, and Clive Owen), let's talk about the movie.
...which is effing fantastic.  Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking is heartbreaking.  He's brilliant, and goofy, and funny, and he retains all of that as you watch his body disintegrate.  And talk about acting with your eyes: for the last two-thirds of the movie, his dialogue is either mumbled into near-incoherence, or delivered through computer. That's a rather extreme acting challenge.  
Furthermore, I can't even imagine how much pain Redmayne had to  be in after a day of filming; his body is agonizing to watch as Hawking's ALS takes its toll.  
The film is not so much about the science; it's more a biopic of Hawking's marriage to fellow scholar Jane Wilde (played by English rose-y Felicity Jones) as their marriage and Hawking's illness  takes its toll on both of them.  While the movie does a very credible job at explaining the strained but loving relationship between the two, I do wish there had been more science (yep, I said that.  In public. I want science.).  Hawking's brilliance is not only theoretical; it's also in how he has made physics accessible.  The physics in this movie isn't accessible, in fact, it's mostly ignored.  I just wish more effort had been made to highlight how such an incredible brain continued to affect the world, even as it became more and more trapped in its own universe.

And the "big" ones I've not seen
American Sniper.  Haven’t gotten there yet.  Not sure I can gird my loins tightly enough. 
Boyhood.  Haven’t seen it yet.  Fascinated by the idea; not sure if I’m anticipating something beyond the "let's-film-for-12-years" gimmick. 
Whiplash.  I desperately want to see this, but I missed it playing in local theatres.  (Now I'm starting to miss living in Entertainmentland.)  I adore J.K. Simmons, and  I’m pretty excited to watch him chew some scenery. Plus, jazz drums!!
So with what I've seen, I'm going with Selma for Picture, Eddie Redmayne for Actor, I haven't seen enough of the women but I quite liked Felicity Jones for Actress, Ed Norton or JK Simmons for Supporting, Keira Knightley for Supporting, and Richard Linklater for Director.  But what the hell do I know?  I'll be on my couch with the rest of the world, eating popcorn, waiting for Sexyman Cumberpants to photobomb someone, and yelling about how great Neil Patrick Harris's opening dance number is.  There IS an opening dance number, right, NPH??

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women, Armed

My friend Amy Bai is publishing her newest book, Sword, TODAY!  It's a gorgeous tale of female empowerment, swordfights, and destiny-thru-nursery rhymes. I can't wait to read it!

It's shown up on a Buzzfeed list of 31 Sicfi, Fantasy, and Horror novels to read in February.   Who else is on this list, you may ask?  Oh, you know, no one you've heard of.  Just Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Terry Pratchett.  No big deal. 

You can order Amy's book here as an ebook, or here for Kindle.

I'll be reviewing soon!