LEGO Double Feature: The LEGO Movie (2014) and Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary (2014)

August 14, 2014

legomovieI saw The LEGO Movie last February and loved it so thoroughly much I decided to hold off on reviewing it and make one of the characters a Boyfriend of the Week.  I wanted to tie the write-up and the review into one big metaphoric LEGO brick I then metaphorically pitched through your metaphoric windows with a gigantic, delightful metaphoric crash.

BUT, as these things do(n’t), that didn’t end up coming together.  Poor MetalBeard; loved and forgotten, all in a span of only about 5 months.  That just ain’t right. (Though, alas, it is all too common — I have 7 (!) unfinished write-ups right now and I can’t seem to focus my attention on any of them long enough to wrap them up!  So many Boyfriends, so little time for foolin’ around!)

Delaying the review, however, ended up being kind of lucky, because when the Seattle International Film Festival came around again this year, I got a chance to see a new LEGO documentary called Beyond the Brick, which was even BETTER than The LEGO Movie, making this pretty much the most perfect double-feature write-up of blissfulness ever.

These two films have two things in common (aside from the obvious theme): they both star a mini-fig, which is awesome because minifigs are my favorite part of LEGO (Beyond the Brick is narrated by Jason Bateman in LEGO form, which is just about the most delightful thing of all time, and The LEGO Movie’s stars are all mini-figs, of course), and both are incredibly funny and completely charming.

Okay, that’s three things. Stop checking my work, nitpickers!

The LEGO Movie was the film I saw first, so let’s start with that one.  It was a huge, delightful surprise!  I was expecting a full-on kid movie, and instead, what I got was a movie very obviously written by someone more or less my age.  The pop culture references were spot-on for my generation, and even the inside jokes about LEGO were things adults were much more likely to pick up on than kids.  Judging from the audience I saw it with, I’m not alone in this, either — the kids in the theater were giggling, but the adults were absolutely roaring.

The plot is nothing unique — it’s about an accidental hero and the buddies who make his heroism possible — but the plot isn’t the point; the characters and the humor are the point, and the point is an incredibly great way to spend 100 minutes of your time.  All the little details are fantastically fun, and the “moral” of the story, that being creative is awesome!, is a great reminder for movie watchers of all ages.  If you’re a fan of interlocking brick systems — or even if you were when you were a kid and you’ve never looked back since — dollars to LEGO croissants, you’re going to get a big kick out of this movie.  And that’s all I’m going to say about it, because I don’t think I need say anything more. IT IS GREAT.

beyondthebrickBeyond the Brick, on the other hand, is not only entertaining, but also utterly fascinating.  This documentary tells the story of the origins of The LEGO Group, which began as a toy company in Denmark in 1949, manufacturing toys made primarily out of wood (like, little wooden ducks on wheels, for example). Then one day, while at some kind of toy expo, the owner saw a demo of a plastic molding machine and got a really great idea.

Since the dawn of the basic 2×4 brick, these toys have been used for a variety of things completely unrelated to play. Engineers and architects use LEGO to build models of new structures, math professors use them to illustrate problems (how many unique configurations can you make with 3 2×4 bricks, e.g.), and they’re used by artists to create all kinds of amazing, creative works (you’ve probably seen Nathan Sawaya’s stuff before).

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we’re also introduced to a child psychologist who uses LEGO to help severely autistic children interact with each other and with their therapists.  Kids are put into groups and given a project to build together, each with a specific task.  By following such a direct, clearly defined plan, children who typically have an extraordinarily difficult time engaging with others are able to talk to each other, work together, and create something as a team.  This scene alone makes the film worth the price of admission, if you ask me — what a genius idea, and what an amazing tool for positive change.  TOYS!  They are the best.

The film also has an interesting focus on adult LEGO “play,” too.  It profiles a number of grown-ups famous in the Brick Con (LEGO convention) world for their fantastical creations and structures, as well as people who have created their own LEGO-based businesses, like the Washingtonian guy (a friend of my brother’s, coincidentally) who designs, presses, and sells historical guns and other weaponry (LEGO itself mostly only makes Old West and sci-fi guns).

After all these enterprising adults started to monkey around with the LEGO brand, making their own accessories and builds and even selling some of them for profit, LEGO was forced into a not-so-unusual dilemma in the corporate world: do they go after the people profiting off their brand and sue the pants off ‘em?  Or do they embrace the creativity of their fans and try to find a way to work together?

Happily, they went in the latter direction, not only allowing those businesses to continue, but also launching a platform several years ago called “Cuusoo” (Japanese for a concept similar to the word “wish”), in which builders from all over the world design LEGO sets, fans vote on the ones they like the best, and LEGO picks a winner and then develops, markets, and sells the set.  I lack the words to fully express how much I love the whole Cuusoo concept (it’s now called “LEGO Ideas,” by the way).  It’s simply one of the coolest things a huge corporation has ever done for its fans, andpoking around on the site looking at everybody’s designs and voting on my favorites is one my favorite ways to unwind in the evenings (if you have a moment, by the way, register on the site and then vote for the LEGO Hubble telescope, because HOW COOL IS THAT?).

meglegoAll in all, LEGO is sure having a pretty great year on the big screen.  I highly, highly recommend both these movies, especially to all you adult fans out there.  Kids will love The LEGO Movie, to be sure, but you grown-ups will love it even more (unless you have hearts made of plastic). And nobody won’t love Beyond the Brick, because it’s pure perfection. That one isn’t available at the moment, but — best news of all — it’s been picked up by a distribution company  and should be more widely released in late 2014 or early 2015 (according to the producer, who was at the screening I attended answering questions)!  Woo!

LEGO + MEG 4-EVA!

[Netflix LEGO Movie | Buy/Rent it on Amazon | Beyond the Brick site]

Genre: Kids, Documentary, Comedy
Cast (LEGO Movie): Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman

James Garner, You Will Be Missed

July 22, 2014

garner1As many of you have undoubtedly heard by now, James Garner passed away Saturday night at the age of 86.

An early Boyfriend of the Week — I posted his write-up in 2005 and you can go give it a look-see right here — Garner was one of my favorite actors as a kid, and probably the first real “crush” I ever had on a celebrity.

My first experience with him was in The Rockford Files, a never-missed-an-episode TV series at my house growing up.  Even though I was too young at the time to fully understand most of the plots, I was utterly smitten with his brown eyes, his easy-going smile, and the way he could take a crack to that enormous superhero chin and keep on swingin’. As an adult going back to it several years ago, the series took on whole new charms for me, not the least of which was his character’s wonderful relationship with his father, Rocky, played with such perfect chemistry by Noah Beery, Jr., it was hard to remember they weren’t actually father and son in real life.

When I got older, The Great Escape became (and then remained) one of my top 5 most beloved, most watched films.  I got a chance to see it on the big screen about five years ago, and I’ve never forgotten the thrill of that experience.  Garner’s character, Hendley, AKA “The Scrounger,” was about as archetypal a role for him as any other.  He often played heroes who were deeply flawed and highly accidental in their heroism, and Hendley, true to type, starts out a distant, disengaged American flyer, more interested in saving his own skin than pitching in to help save another’s.  It doesn’t take long for his bunk-mate Colin, “The Forger,” to get through those defenses, though, and all the way under that skin — and in the end, Hendley nearly loses his life trying to save that of his friend.

Maverick, Rockford — even better, Jason McCullough from another favorite of mine, Support Your Local Sheriff! — they were all heroes like that: begrudging, but damn good at it when they finally got down to business.  Instead of relying on guns or fists to get the job done, Garner’s characters frequently wielded razor-sharp wit and lady-killin’ charm, to pretty universally disarming effect.

Not unlike MacGyver in that regard, I have to say.  No wonder I loved him as much as I did.

Garner was a hero in real life as well — he fought in the Korean War and was injured twice, earning two Purple Hearts.  In the 1960s, he was a passionate advocate for civil rights, and later in life, of various environmental causes as well.

In his memoir, The Garner Files, he answered a question that seems more poignant to me now than ever before, so I’m going to share it with you.  He wrote:

funny faceI’ve been asked again and again, “How do you want to be remembered?” I usually say I don’t care, but that’s not true. I want to have accomplished something, to have made a contribution to the world. It would be wonderful if just one person looked at my life and said, “If he could overcome that, maybe I can too.”

Beyond that, I think an actor can contribute by making people forget their troubles for an hour or two. Call it relief, escape, diversion . . . I think one of the greatest gifts is being able to make people happy. I like to make people happy.

So, if anyone asks, “How do you want to be remembered?” I tell them: “With a smile.”

Well, you got it, good sir, because I’m smiling right now.  With a face like that, after all, who could resist? James Garner was the master of dry wit and disengaging kindness, and he was a real sweetheart to boot. He married his wife Lois two weeks after meeting her — smitten on the spot.  Imagine that love. Think of that kind of love. They were together for 58 years, until the day he died.

Beat that.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to queue up a few episodes of The Rockford Files on Netflix, to keep that smiling burning all night long.  If you have an hour, you should join me.

MOVIE: Unforgiven (2013) (Japanese remake)

July 20, 2014

unforgivenFans of the Western genre will appreciate the symmetry of this film.  Back when Clint Eastwood was an actor instead of a director, he appeared in the film A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti Western based on the Japanese samurai movie Yojimbo.  And now, mumble-mumble years later (I could look that up, but I won’t) one of his films has been reverse-engineered into a samurai movie all its own.

The good news is that it’s very good.  The bad news is that it’s virtually a scene-for-scene remake, with few surprises.  The guns have been replaced with swords, and the outfits are (mostly) different, but aside from that, most of the characterizations and the action is the same.  Which is fine, really; it’s a remake, after all. It’s just that there was a lot of room in this story for newness based on the fairly dramatic cultural and historical differences, and that didn’t get as much consideration as I would’ve liked it to.  Maybe the grim business of killing is the same in every culture, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the lack of invention.

Fans of Ken Watanabe, future Boyfriend of the Week, should definitely catch this one — he makes an excellent Clint Eastwood.  But even better is his sidekick Akira Emoto, who not only plays Morgan Freeman’s character, but looks exactly like a Japanese Morgan Freeman.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, frankly.  It was amazing how much they resembled each other.

Definitely recommended to fans of the original, but this film stands alone just fine as well, so if you hate gunslingers but love samurai, you’ll find a lot to like here for sure.

[View trailer]

Genre: Western/Eastern, Foreign
Cast:  Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Jun KunimuraShiori Kutsuna, Yûya Yagira

MOVIE: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

July 17, 2014

brokencircleThis is the saddest, most beautiful film I have ever seen.  I kind of want to leave it at that, but I’m about to make a huge mess of everything instead by going on, because, you know . . . I’m in a mood. And it put me there. Apologies in advance.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play cowritten by the film’s hirsute star, Johan Heldenbergh, is about a Flemish man, Didier, who begins the story in love with American bluegrass music, and ends it in love with a tattoo artist named Elise.

They meet at a show he’s playing, and fall head over heels almost immediately. Initially, it’s largely a physical relationship — they want each other desperately, and there’s little time for anything else. But when Elise suddenly becomes pregnant, the relationship is turned upside down, shaken like a cup full of dice in a Yahtzee game. Finally, they manage to overcome their trepidation at making so immutable a commitment to each other, get married, and move in together, beginning the business of living.

One night, as Didier’s playing some of his favorite tunes for Elise, she begins to sing along, timidly at first, then, gauging his reaction, more boldly. He realizes her voice is exactly the thing his band has been missing, and she soon becomes an integral part of the group, bringing harmony both to his life and to his music.

Nine months later, they have their child.  Four or five years after that, they lose her.

And then they lose everything else.

This isn’t a spoiler, I wouldn’t say, by the way — the story is told in a series of flash-backs and -forwards, jumping back and forth through various stages of their relationship, so you know what’s coming, for the most part, long before you get there.

That’s why, in fact, it took me over 2 months to watch this movie all the way through. After the first 30 minutes or so, I had to stop every ten and wait another week before continuing. It was that difficult to watch, that difficult to feel, to experience.  I have never lost a child, and I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.  But I’ll tell you this, because I can’t seem not to right now: I’ve lost the chance at a child, the hope of a child, and the language of that grief seemed to me to share at least enough of the same roots as the language of the grief in this film that it was completely and painfully decipherable.

It’s not the same, obviously, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is, either. After all, Didier and Elise meet their baby girl, they watch her grow, they come to know her, they fall desperately in love with her face, her smiles, her laughs, her tears, her curiosity, her lust for living. And then she is taken from them, slowly and with no small amount of suffering. It is a terrible thing. It is, in fact, the most terrible of all things. It compares to nothing. It’s the kind of grief that swallows a person whole and never spits them back out, not all the way. In this film, you watch Didier and Elise be swallowed up just like that, right there on the screen, every tiny, terrible gulp.

At the risk of exposing way too much about the bedrock of my heart, though — or worse, making this beautiful film and all its tragedies all about me (yuck) — I will tell you this:  there is a baby that haunts my dreams. She never existed, not once, not for a single moment.  Yet, she is as mine as anything ever has been. In those dreams, she is as real as you are. As real as I am.  She has my eyes. She has his hair. She visits me all the time. And when I wake, she is gone.  Every time, she is gone. And so, while it’s not the same — not even a little bit — it is still, in all the ways relevant to this, the same enough to matter.

This is oversharing, which I try not to do here, because who cares, really? What you want to know is whether or not this is a good movie. So I’ll tell you: yes, this is a good movie. In fact, this is a beautiful movie; it is a beautifully written, beautifully wrought film that will throw your heart into a well and leave you stand standing there craning your ears for hours, listening for the splash that never comes. This is the kind of movie you put on and never fully take back off. It is that rich a thing. That good, that hard, that everything and more.

Beyond that, and as a bonus to all you bluegrass fans out there (or those of you who never knew bluegrass before but are about to), the soundtrack is as much a work of pure, perfect craft as the film itself.  At one point in the movie, Didier tells Elise the story of the origins of bluegrass — how it was started by immigrants from all over the world who were living in this great melting pot of cultures in the Appalachians, coming together with each of their own traditional instruments to make a new sound.  More so than any other music, bluegrass is the sound of the acceptance of “other,” the sound of cooperation, dizzy experimentation, pure love of tone.  It’s a combination so artful it practically hangs on the walls.   Even if you decide not to watch the film, you should definitely give the record a listen, because every single minute is a total masterpiece of rhythm, resonance, and racket.

I don’t really have the words to express how highly I recommend this incredible film. I recommend it very, very highly.  The problem is, asking you to watch it — if you have any heart at all — is like asking you to take a kebab skewer and shove it into your eye.  I can’t help but think, however, that  movie capable of hitting a human being this hard is the rarest gift of all.  It’s what movies are supposed to do — they are supposed to generate that same rhythm and resonance in our own lives, right there as we watch them.  A film that actually succeeds at doing that is a rare gift, and it’s the kind of experience you’ll never forget.  In my private life, I am fairly rigorously loathe to feel things. I don’t like it. Not one bit.  But when I’m forced to do it, as I obviously was by this film, the reward sometimes more than makes up for the journey.

In that regard, I don’t know what to tell you, really, other than this:  The Broken Circle Breakdown grabbed me by the ankles and flung me heart-first into a wall.  And I’ll never be able to thank it enough.

Do with that what you will.

[Rent on Amazon (free with Prime) | Netflix it]

Genre: Drama, Foreign
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster,Robbie Cleiren

BOOK: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)

July 15, 2014

cantwetalkRoz Chast is one of my favorite cartoonists of all time — her work is frequently featured in The New Yorker, among other places, which is also where I read the excerpt from this book that made me run right out to grab a copy.

This powerful, loving, hilarious, and tender memoir is about the end of her parents’ lives, and the challenges brought forth both by grief and practicality. Spanning their last several years together, from the day she first began to realize they were in a sudden decline, to their final months in an assisted living residence, the memoir features not only Chast’s graphics, but also photographs, copies of her mother’s handwritten (and delightfully rhyming) poems, and little pieces of history and memory.

The decline hastened after a fall — ain’t that always the way — and both her parents never really recovered from the resultant trauma (mom got hurt, dad got scared). Nothing in this book is something you haven’t encountered, either in your own life as a caregiver for an elderly loved one, or through the stories of loved ones who have done that themselves.  But it’s the way it’s told here that is so enriching, enlightening, engaging.  Chast is a beautiful writer, something it’s easy to forget when you simply look at her art, which leans toward the scribbly side (though I love it, don’t get me wrong). Her insights are bottomless and her love for her parents, especially her difficult and somewhat cold mother, comes sharply ringing through both the text and the drawings.

This is a powerful and richly emotional book, and it made me laugh out loud to boot.  Definitely going to be in this year’s top ten list for me, and I bet if you read it, you’ll feel the same.  Highly, highly recommended!

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Snowpiercer (2013)

July 15, 2014

snowpiercerIn 2014, we’re told during the opening frames of this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, mankind finally figured out a way to stop the progression of global warming. A chemical, found to lower the temperature of the atmosphere by a few degrees, was released into the sky by dozens of countries at the same time, then everybody sat back and relaxed, anticipating the glorious need for socks and sweaters once again at last.

Great idea; one small problem:  Mother Nature rarely appreciates being monkeyed with, and instead of cooperating by chilling out ever so gently slightly, she opened up a can of Ice Age on their ass.

Cut to 17 years later and a train.  It’s called the Snowpiercer, and it’s the largest train ever built.  On board are the last survivors of the planet Earth. The train uses a perpetual motion engine, we’re told in an educational video, and travels along a huge, globe-spanning track, cycling once around the planet every year (try not to wonder how this magical track never needs repairs; it won’t do you any good).

When the Snowpiercer was first unveiled as the last stop for man, it was boarded using a class system — essentially to establish a class system, really, since the money was immediately useless the second it was spent. You either paid for a first- or second-class ticket, or you ended up jammed in the tail of the train with 1000 other poor people, where there was no food, no water, no windows, and no hope.  For 17 years, the tailies have struggled to survive, and while eventually, the owner/conductor of the train, “Wilford the Benevolent,” stepped in to provide them with just enough water and gelatinous “protein bars” to survive, the conditions began horrific and pretty much stayed that way.

As the story opens, a young tailie named Curtis (played by Captain America) and the tail’s elderly leader Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning a rebellion, the first in years. The conditions they’ve been forced to endure and the terrible abuses they’ve been increasingly subjected to have finally become intolerable, and the group intends to turn this train around once and for all, so to speak.

The plan?  To bust through the length of the Snowpiercer and get to the engine — the ultimate seat of control. Though they have almost no weapons whatsoever, and face a force of guards armed to the teeth (or are they? rumor has it they actually ran out of bullets years ago. . .), the proletariat is, as always, a class to be reckoned with, because the “have-nots” are fueled by something the “haves” simply ceased to  possess: the ardor of want.

As they make their way from car to car, through battle after battle, Curtis and his team (including the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer) encounter one astonishing sight after the next, beginning with their first look out a window in 17 years, and followed quickly by cars filled with living, growing fruits and vegetables; frozen slabs of beef and whole chickens (try not to wonder where this magical meat comes from; it won’t do you any good); and a tunnel through a car surrounded on all sides by a glassed-in aquarium loaded to the gills (pun) with fish.

While the poor have been barely subsisting on those disgusting “protein bars,” the rich have been feasting on what appears to be an endless supply of sushi and steak. Every injustice fuels the tailies’ fervor further until, finally, the last survivors of the team break their way into the engine, finding there the biggest shock of all.

Now, there are a WHOLE HOST of things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in this film, which is typically something that drives me pretty bananas.  Here, though, while I noted each one in turn, and rolled my eyes at more than a few (including everybody’s horror at finding out what the protein bars are made of, which: who cares? Plenty of people eat that right now by choice all over the world already, you wimps), the movie is so damned entertaining, being annoyed seemed like a waste of a perfectly good time. This is pure summer popcorn fun, with some extra-delightful elements on board as well, including and especially the magnificent Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable as the cruel, bug-eyed, buck-toothed spokesperson for the Wilford of Oz, coincidentally wearing not only my haircut from the 3rd grade, but my glasses as well.

While Snowpiercer thinks itself more clever than it actually is (for all its earnest “analysis” of the ramifications of a class system where the rich have so MUCH more than the poor, it actually has nothing new or interesting to add), this is easily the most thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick I’ve seen all year. Great production values, good storytelling, engaging character dynamics. Plus, if you’re in the middle of a heat wave like we are in Seattle right now, spending two hours with a movie set in a world where your arm can freeze solid in 7 minutes makes for some pretty nice daydreaming.

Not that I’m complaining about the heat, Mother Nature. NOT ONE TINY BIT (please don’t hurt me).

Recommended!

[Rent on Amazon streaming | Prequeue at Netflix]

Genre: Science Fiction, Disaster
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Kang-ho Song, Ewen Bremner

BOOK: Roosevelt’s Beast by Louis Bayard (2014)

July 1, 2014

beastI’m a huge fan of Louis Bayard’s writing and storytelling — two of his novels, in fact, so enthralled me I remember exactly where I was when I finished them (The Pale Blue Eye and The Black Tower).  When I saw he had a new novel out — a fictionalized spin on a true story I had read a non-fiction book about and loved just last year (River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard — I can’t find my review of it so maybe I forgot to write it?), I thought, man, somebody up there likes me. . .

Or. . . perhaps not so much? I’ll try not to take it personally.

Both books (this one and the non-fiction River of Doubt) are about the trip to the Amazonian jungle Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit took just after Roosevelt lost his bid for reelection in 1913.  Joining up with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, the plan was to explore the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they intended to trace all the way to the Amazon River.  In the real story, Teddy becomes so sick a few weeks into the trip with a mysterious infection and fever he can barely move on his own, forcing Kermit to to care for him day and night — ultimately saving his father’s life.

In Bayard’s fictionalized version, Kermit and Teddy, just beginning to fall ill, get separated from the group and are kidnapped up by a local tribe.  Living with the tribe after being kidnapped herself at an early age is a young woman, the daughter of a missionary, who is the only person able to communicate with the two men.  She translates the tribe’s directives: they’ll be permitted to leave only if they can find and kill the terror-inducing monster who has been brutally attacking and murdering their people.  The tribesmen themselves are too afraid to go after it themselves, but T.R. and Kermit, avid hunters their entire lives, agree right away to the deal, believing the tribe is just a bunch of superstitious fools being spooked by some boring ol’ jaguar. It’ll take them a day to catch and kill it and then they’ll be on their way home — no big. I mean, obviously it’s something like a jaguar, right? There’s no such thing as monsters, for pity’s sake.

Their self-assuredness falters fast, though, when they get their first look at a victim — eviscerated, flayed, and essentially licked clean from the inside out, with not a single track to be found around the body.  It’s as if the creature came down from sky, hovered to kill, then flew off again without a trace. They’ve never seen anything like it before, but promise to fulfill their part of the deal so they can get the hell out of there.

As the two men struggle to figure out what is really going on, a romance between Kermit and the young lady begins to develop, and we also get a very intriguing look inside Kermit’s mind (he’s sort of the narrator, though it’s not a first-person narrative).  This is the part I enjoyed the most about the story — the characters, their insights, and their relationships.  Kermit Roosevelt was an interesting guy, stuck playing second fiddle to the more famous Roosevelts in his life, which, coupled with bad genes, led to a lifetime of crushing depression and alcoholism that ultimately drove him to commit suicide at age 54.  Though this work was fiction, it was clear Bayard had done a lot of research into the two men’s relationship, and I enjoyed the dynamic very much.

The problem: Bayard is famous — to me, anyway — for writing fairly serious fiction featuring historical people or characters and typically a mystery-type plot.  The Black Tower, for example, is about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles, as well as the notorious Eugène François Vidocq, career criminal and (ironically) the first director of France’s Sûreté Nationale.  His novel The Pale Blue Eye, another detective story, features a young Edgar Allen Poe as its central sleuth, and his book Mr. Timothy is an exploration of what kind of young man little Tim Cratchit, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, might have grown into.

[SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you plan to pick this one up!]

For that reason, what I was expecting with this novel was something rooted fairly firmly in reality. Roosevelt’s Beast, however, takes what could have been a rich fish-out-of-water story exploring the superstitions of an Amazonian tribe and the mythos of a famous American family, and turns it into total hokum instead.  Which would’ve been fine if the hokum were interesting, but it was more cheesy and ridiculous than gripping and thought-provoking.  I can see that it was at least partly an attempt to provide an explanation for Kermit’s suicide, but of all the fascinating ways his death could’ve been explored, this is the least fascinating one I can imagine.  Instead of feeling authentic, it mostly just felt ludicrous — a waste of an otherwise interesting character.  And what a weird veering from the norm for Bayard, too. While I’m the first person to offer kudos to an established author trying something new, the new thing still has to earn those kudos by not sucking.  Not earned here.  Not at all.

That said, though the silly plot was a major distraction from the novel’s strengths, there were still many strengths to this novel.  The writing is great, as usual, the characters are great, as usual, and the setting is almost a beast all its own.  Some of the subplots, especially about the young woman’s life with the tribe, were very authentic in feel and expression.  Though I was disappointed overall, I didn’t HATE this novel. I read the whole thing and I was entertained.  My problems were largely problems of expectations, I suspect.  I still very much love Louis Bayard.  I just hope this isn’t the start of a new kind of trend for his writing.  Because, honestly?  I really, really liked the old kind of trend for his writing.

If you’ve never read any Bayard, I’d suggest The Pale Blue Eye as a great starting place, by the way.  Good old fashioned detectin’. Save this one for last, if you get around to it at all.

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

New Boyfriend Write-Up Coming Soon! (Swearsies.)

June 23, 2014

john_oliver2-620x412Okay, so John Oliver’s been the Boyfriend of the Week for, like, 9000 years, I know.  I know!  I KNOW!  I knnnnnnow!

He’s awfully cute, though, isn’t he?  I mean, sure, I have a new write-up nearing completion at last, and I’m hoping to get it launched this week or next at the latest, but I’m going to miss having Oliver’s face right there all the time. It’s not easy moving on. Believe me, I’ve done it a lot.

Meanwhile, have you been watching his new show on HBO (“Last Week Tonight”)?  If not, try to catch it if you can. Clips show up constantly online — seek them out.  And read this article from Salon, because it’s a good summation of just how much butt he’s been kickin’ (answer: a LOT of butt):

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/23/the_medias_moral_
center_how_john_oliver_became_the_sheriff_of_cable_news_wild_west/

Stay tuned in July for a new Boyfriend write-up and about 80 gazillion movie and book reviews that are currently half-finished.  OMG, summertime.  It’s a madhouse!

BOOK: Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Book 2) by Ransom Riggs (2014)

June 22, 2014

hollowcityThis novel, the sequel to Riggs’ super-creative but slightly underwhelming 2011 novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, was as entertaining as the first book, but unfortunately also as problematic.

The story starts up where Peregrine left off — Miss Peregrine’s home for wayward “peculiars” (children with magical abilities) has just been bombed, and our intrepid heroes, a set of youths ranging in age from baby to teen, are on the run.  Miss Peregrine herself is trapped in bird form, leaving the kids on the loose, running from monsters, with no adult to guide them.

Desperate for help, Jacob, Emma, and the others head out in search for other peculiars who might be able to help them — particularly to help restore Miss Peregrine to her human body before she is stuck as a bird forever.  Their journey takes them through every kind of terrain there is: on trains, on boats, through forests and the Blitzed streets of London, and more, traveling through a range of time loops, encountering a range of characters.

The story in the sequel was more engaging than the one in the original — for me, anyway.  The characters all knew each other this time around (in the first book, Jacob was an outsider coming in, and the focus was mostly on him), which lent itself to deeper explorations of their selves and their relationships.  But the gimmick gave me the same issues; the inspiration for both these novels is a set of old (real) photographs the author has collected over the years in which tricks with light and exposure have resulted in various oddities: a boy with no feet, a girl who appears to be floating, an object dangling in open space suggesting an invisible person at play, that kind of thing. It’s such a great, creative, clever idea — but it’s unfortunately overused to the point of incoherence in both novels. In this one in particular, it didn’t take long before I started to feel like Riggs had begun with a stack of pictures he desperately wanted to work in, but which he increasingly realized didn’t quite fit with the story.  Instead of letting them go, though, he simply had characters appear and disappear out of the blue, serving no real plot purpose, just to provide the excuse to share the nifty pics with his readers.

It reminded me of a writing exercise I used to do in high school where the teacher would give us a list of 10 random words and tell us to write a short story that incorporated them all. Invariably, this results in at least 1 or 2 places, sometimes more, where you introduce a concept you never would’ve put in there had it not been for the requirement to make it work.  This type of exercise never — NEVER! — results in a brilliant piece of writing.  It’s an exercise — it’s not meant to create a final product.

But that’s the part I think Riggs hasn’t quite caught on to.  Great idea, but you have to be incredibly careful with the execution or else what you end up with is a story about a kid named Roger who finds the bones of a dinosaur (which he names a “thesaurus flex”) buried deep in the earth, tucked inside a styrofoam cup (at least, this is the story I ended up with when I was asked to write a tale that included the words “thesaurus,” “flex,” and “styrofoam,” among others).

Still, despite the occasional distraction of the gimmick, I enjoyed both these novels and am definitely game for what looks like it’ll be a third (the second certainly sets us up well for a third, anyway). Even if you end up not digging the stories, the photographs themselves are fascinating, making the first one well worth a peek if you haven’t already checked it out.  Sort of recommended?  I guess?  Sure, why not.

[FICTION]

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MOVIE: Godzilla (2014)

June 14, 2014

godzillaI saw this movie a few weeks ago. It . . . um . . .  let’s see.  What is there to say about it?  Well, okay, it had Ken Watanabe in it, which was nice because I’d just seen him the day before in another movie (review coming soon).  And it was about . . . um. . . a big dinosaur thing that came out of the ocean apparently to have a big fight with a giant bat thing. Or something? Because it likes humanity? Or it doesn’t care about humanity, it just doesn’t like the bat thing, or . . . I don’t know. Something. Oh my god, this movie was boring.

When I walked out of the theater with my two bad-movie-watching buddies, I exclaimed, “How do you make a creature feature THAT BORING?”  A silly question, of course, because this movie answers the very question it generates.  For example, one of the ways you can make a creature feature THAT BORING is to include at least 45 minutes of soldiers shooting at the creature with bullets from guns, without a single one of them thinking to themselves, “Hey, these bullets from these guns don’t appear to be doing anything — perhaps we ought to try something bigger?”

“Crap” consensus shared by both the ladies I saw this with, one of whom was a childhood fan of the original.    So there.

SAVE YOURSELVES! FROM GODZILLA! BY NOT SEEING THIS!

RAWR! The end.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Monsters, Horror, Crap
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn


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