Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Thanks to a number of war-themed movies, we've gotten some idea (albeit dramatized ones) of what soldiers went through during wartime and after the battles have ended, and how they coped with injuries and trauma. Add Phil Klay's powerful story collection, Redeployment, to this mix. It's a collection that packs a real punch, and Klay, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, doesn't shy away from brutal honesty, using images and plots that at times may make you uncomfortable, but which truly sear your mind.
Some of my favorite stories included: "Prayer in the Furnace," in which a chaplain finds his abilities and his faith tested by the actions of a zealous Colonel and the effects his zeal had on those in his platoon; "Psychological Operations," which follows the struggles of a former PsyOps Marine desperate for the approval of his father, and a Muslim classmate; "Money as a Weapons System," which humorously looks at the bureaucracy of war, as a Foreign Service Officer ready to make a difference is encouraged to teach young Iraqi children to play baseball; "War Stories," which powerfully illustrates the aftereffects of major injuries on both the injured soldier and one of his best friends, also a veteran; "Unless It's A Sucking Chest Wound," where a Marine-turned-law school graduate deals with a struggling friend still in the service, and the ghosts of those left behind; and the title story, which is a gut punch, following a soldier upon his immediate return to Fallujah, forced into the idea of taking another life.
Klay is a talented writer whose language absolutely dazzles, and the emotion in his stories really resonated. At times when he described gunfire and other action, you actually felt as if you were in the midst of it. His characters are funny, poignant, and all too human. My only criticism of the collection is that Klay uses so many acronyms that soldiers would know, but the average reader probably doesn't, so while I had an idea of what he was trying to say, I couldn't quite grasp certain things. (One story used so many acronyms I could only understand the bare bones of the plot.)
I look forward to seeing if Phil Klay continues writing, because his voice is a powerful one, and his talent deserves to be read.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Lucy Dane has lived in the small Ozark town of Henbane all her life. She's always felt a bit suffocated by her hometown, always longed for something more, and she can't wait to graduate from high school and leave, in search of more excitement. She's also looking for answersher young mother, Lila, disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and no one has ever understood what happened to her, although some of the townsfolk believe that Lila was a witch, the way she enchanted people.
When Lucy's friend Cheri disappears and then is discovered dismembered about a year later, Lucy regrets not being a better friend to the girl, but she also can't stop wondering what might have happened to her. And when she finds something of Cheri's in a surprising place, it sparks her need to find out the truth, no matter what trouble she might dig up. At the same time, she starts trying to figure out the truth behind her mother's disappearance, from those she left behind, and those not as willing to share their thoughts.
"Cheri and Lila, two lost girls, bookends with a lifetime of mysteries between them. And then it occurred to me: If it was possible to find one, why not the other? It couldn't hurt to ask around. Someone out there might know what happened to my mother. It might not be too late to find out."
The Weight of Blood follows Lucy's search for answers, as she turns to her best friend, Bess, and Daniel, a local boy she can't stop thinking about. The book also shifts perspective to Lila when she arrived in Henbane, and the challenges, opportunities, and fears she faced. From time to time, the book also is narrated by other characters in both the past and present, which gives more weight to the story.
This is a really powerful book about the ties of family, how blood is so much stronger than anything else, and it often makes us turn a blind eye to what is in front of us. It's a book about the secrets that weigh on us, those we wish we could tell, and those we know we must carry with us for the rest of our lives. It's also a enormously compelling story about the things that go unsaid, and the actions we're driven to because we don't know the things we should.
Laura McHugh is a terrific writer. She's created a tremendously evocative setting in Henbane that you can truly feel, and her characters don't stoop to the stereotypes you often see in books set in the Ozarks. In some cases these are simple people who have made their lives from virtually nothing, but they're not one-dimensional characters. Both Lucy and Lila's stories are gripping, emotional, and satisfying, and although you probably can guess where the book will lead, the story keeps you hooked, much as Henbane has had its hold on so many throughout the years.
"The Ozarks did have a way of calling folks home, though I'd never thought I would be one of them. All my life I had told myself I didn't belong here. Henbane was a map of the devil, his backbone, eye, and throat, its caves and rivers a geography of my loss. But I hadn't taken into account how a place becomes part of you, claims you for its own. Like it or not, my roots tangled deep in the rocky soil."
I really enjoyed this, and recommend it wholeheartedly.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Deenie Nash and her friends, Lise and Gabby, seem like your typical high school students. They're anxious about classes, friends, and especially, boys. But their friendships are on shaky ground, as Lise transformed from a chubby girl into a young woman suddenly unaware of the appeal of her body, and Gabby is withdrawing from Deenie, spending more time with another student, the mysterious Skye. Deenie's father, Tom, is a popular teacher at her high school, and her older brother Eli is a high school hockey player who isn't quite sure how to handle so many girls throwing themselves at him.
In a split second, everything changes. Lise suddenly suffers a mysterious seizure during class, and her condition continues to worsen once she is rushed to the hospital. No one can stop talking about what happened to her, and pictures and videos of the seizure make their way across social media. And then suddenly other female students are experiencing strange symptomstwitching, anxiety, vomiting, and psychological anguish. At a band concert the night after Lise's seizure, Gabby passes out as well, and no one knows what will happen next, and who will be affected.
As more girls become ill and/or hospitalized, both the school and the entire community are abuzz, trying to figure out what is causing this epidemic. Deenie is struggling more than any, as two of her best friends have been stricken and she doesn't know if she's next, or if she's simply a carrier of something that has made her friends ill. Is it some sort of pollution-related illness from the town's lake? Is it a reaction to the HPV vaccines that female students are required by the school system to receive? Or is it something even more sinister?
Megan Abbott follows up her fantastic novel Dare Me with another fantastic depiction of the complicated, sometimes devious minds and behaviors of high school girls. The Fever is quite as mean-girl-filled as Abbott's previous book, but her characters are really well drawn, and I was compelled to keep reading in order to try and figure out what was causing these girls to fall ill. She did a great job of capturing the building hysteria of a community that wants answers and is willing to sacrifice anyone that stands in their way to get them.
More than that, this is a book about secrets, about the things we don't feel comfortable telling our family and friends. It's a book about the anxieties of being a teenager, both for girls and guys, and the anxieties of parenting, the struggles that come with knowing you can't always protect your children from the world around them.
This isn't a perfect bookI felt as if the book headed you down one too many blind paths before revealing the cause of the girls' illness, and I felt that Skye's character wasn't drawn as well as the others. But Megan Abbott is a really talented writer, and I enjoyed this book a great deal despite its flaws. Definitely a fascinating read.
Friday, February 28, 2014
The best way to watch one of these results shows is when it has been recorded, so you can fast forward through all of the unnecessary banter and artificial tension. I mean, I know at some point I'll be frustrated, so why postpone the inevitable.
The show started with a surprisingly decent group medley of Counting Stars by OneRepublic and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. Even with Ben's ridiculously annoying tomfoolery (because I'm like, you know, 100 years old) and Kristen showing more energy in the two solo lines she sang than any of her performances the last two weeks, their voices blended very well.
Apparently there were 71 million votes cast. Of course, I can only wonder how many of those votes actually happened after particular contestants performed. Because given some of the people who were safe, I can only figure they survived because of rabid fan bases.
The first group to hear the results were Malaya, Jena, Ben, and Alex. Again, I'll reiterate how much I hate that they constantly make these contestants walk thru the audience so they can high-five folks as they're going to hear results. To the surprise of no one, Malaya was sent to the stools of doom. Oh, wait, apparently Jennifer was surprised. She said she was upset Malaya was in the bottom three because although her performance "didn't show who she was" (among other things), "she belongs here."
Last year's champ, Candice Glover, came back to perform a medley of two of her songs, Cried and Some Kind of Man. She sounded great but she doesn't have a tremendous amount of stage presence. It's a shame given how talented she is that her album had the lowest sales of any Idol winner to date (even Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze).
Next up for the results, MK, Sam, Majesty and Dexter. In my opinion, Dexter should have been the one in the bottom three, but of course not! He's likeable and he's from the South! Instead, MK was sent to the stools of doom. And if that didn't make me irate enough, when Keith was asked what MK would need to do if she came back next week, and he said, "It needs to be about the emotional connection. It's not about vocal skills." And there you have it.
This season each of the judges and Randy will play "tastemaker" and highlight an up and coming artist. Keith introduced Jake Bugg, a 17-year-old English country singer who sounds a lot like Josiah Leming did when he was on the show (although Bugg's accent is authentic). The "rawr" quality of his voice didn't translate for me, Keith.
Of the last group of contestantsC.J., Kristen, Caleb, Jessica and Emilyit seemed fairly obvious who was headed for the stools. And I was correct, the beautiful disaster herself, Kristen was told she was in the bottom three.
So unless anything changes, it looks like the ladies may be doomed again this season. (It's sad that the only way this show can guarantee a female winner is to stack the deck.) This year the judges' save will expire at the top 6. Will they use it?
MK was sent to safety first. When Ryan asked Kristen what she'd do if she was back next week, she said
Kristen was given the bad news that she'd have to sing for her life. She chose to reprise her rendition of Turning Tables from "Rush Week," and it was just a wee bit wobbly. Harry explained that the key to using the save was that it had to be a unanimous decision among the judges to use it, and the judges couldn't agree, so Kristen is the first person
After the montage of her experience (accompanied by Kristen's own rendition of Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway), her picture in a row of pictures of each of the top 13 was darkened, Hunger Games-style. I'm surprised they didn't shoot off a cannon.
And there you have it. Next week, the theme is "Home." Whatever that means. I'm guessing Caleb may sing Home Sweet Home and perhaps Dexter or C.J. can sing Sweet Home Alabama?
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Yvonne Carmichael is a renowned geneticist, well-established in her career. She and her husband Guy, a fellow scientist she met while in college, is loving and comfortable, and they have two adult children. One day, after testifying before a committee of Parliament on a scientific issue, she meets a man. They talk, they walk, her takes her by the arm, and leads her to a little-used chapel in the basement. And Yvonne begins to undress.
The two begin an affair, despite the fact that she doesn't know her lover's name at first, and he has kept most of his life a mystery from her. He is constantly paranoid, worried that Yvonne might say something to someone, or that their relationship might be discovered. Because of his need to control the situation, Yvonne believes her lover must be a spy for the British government, a fact that excites her almost as much as their relationship has. She knows that they can only see each other at certain times, yet she longs for more, longs for the passion he has ignited in her.
As the pair's relationship wanes and intensifies, one night Yvonne finds herself confronting an utterly unexpected danger from another direction. And it is there the course of her life changes, as she suddenly finds herself, along with her lover, on trial for murder. She is prepared to do just as he has always told her, disclose as little about their relationship as possible so the truth will not be discovered. Or will it?
"Relationships are about stories, not truth. Alone, as individuals, we each have our own personal mythologies, the stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. That generally works fine as long as we stay sane and single, but the minute you enter an intimate relationship with another person there is an automatic dissonance between your story about yourself and his or her story about you."
Apple Tree Yard tells a familiar story, one of love, longing, secrets, and betrayal. Yet in Louise Doughty's hands, the story seems fresh and tremendously interesting, even though you're fairly certain where the plot will go. Yvonne's character is so well drawn, so complex (if not entirely sympathetic), you can truly see how she found herself in the middle of a relationship she never expected, as well as trouble she never imagined. Yvonne never really makes any excuses for her actions, but you understand them, and as the story unfolds you realize that even the most intelligent people have blind spots they're unaware of.
I really enjoyed this book and thought Doughty was an excellent storyteller. It takes a talented writer to make you want to continue reading a story you've seen before, but there are still a good number of twists and turns to keep you thinking. There aren't many books I've read lately with this type of protagonist, and it really worked for me. And it certainly makes you consider your own life, your own relationships, and how a seemingly rational person could be so overtaken by desire and fear.
"Is heartbreak even possible now, I wonder? I'm fifty-two. Anyone my age knows that all things pass. If the transitory nature of our feelings means that true heartbreak is impossible, then where does that leave happiness?"
Give this one a read.
Yeah, I decided to give this season a try. We'll see how long it lasts.
I didn't watch any of the audition or Hollywood episodes, just watched last week, when the top 31 was culled to a top 13. One thing I've noticed is there's far too much touching going on, so I'd imagine Howie Mandel won't be able to watch. The contestants ran into the audience touching their hands, even the judges did the same thing. Sorry, it just creeps me out. I long for the days when the judges sat at their inaccessible table, and the contestants performed up on stage without any of the frolicking in the middle of the audience. Maybe I'm just a germaphobe...
One other thing before I start the actual recap of "This is Me" week. So now you can vote starting at the beginning of the show? What's the point of the show, then? Are the new producers finally acknowledging that the bulk of voters don't actually care about the contestants' performances (kind of like the judges sometimes), but just vote for who they like because they're cute, or from the South, or whatever?
Anyway. The contestants had the opportunity to choose a song that defined themselves as people and as artists. The good news is that this theme led to some songs I never thought I'd hear on the show being performed, and only three songs that have been performed in previous years. Not to say there weren't some dubious choices. And prior to each performance, Randy mumbled some nonsense to try and explain why he's still on the show. (Example: "If Jessica can connect with the song, she'll be a winner." As my friend Kevin would say, "Deep.") The rest of the show Randy sat, grinning and nodding uselessly, like a cross between Buddha and a benevolent don. (Can I start the #bringbackjimmyiovine campaign?)
Dexter kicked off the show, singing Chris Young's Aw Naw (had to Google it). Like Dexter, it was a perfectly nice performance, one you'd expect to hear at a bar or karaoke club. He seems like a terrific guy, but he's lacking a bit in charisma and any kind of vocal star quality. Keith called it "a great cover version," but said Dexter needed to make the song "more Dexter." Harry tried blaming the contestants' ear monitors for the fact that Dexter sung out of tune (a refrain he hit a number of times during the evening). Jennifer urged Dexter to use his personality more, and lamented that the song was too low for him and didn't hit the "sweet spot" of his voice. (Haven't heard that sweet spot in either of the two performances of his I've seen; does it exist or is it as elusive as useful suggestions from the Dawg?)
As soon as I saw Malaya bounding onto the stage, full of puppy-like energy, I wrote down, Tone the shtick down. Seriously. I get it, you're young, you're excited, but enough. She chose to sing Bruno Mars' Runaway Baby, previously performed to perfection by Season 11 third-place finisher Joshua Ledet (go to 2:48 in the video), and promised to bring her patented "Slyonce" (a cross between Sly of Sly and the Family Stone and Beyonce). Well, that didn't happen. But what did was a manic, horribly off-key and out-of-breath performance, where she changed up some of the pronouns but not all, and mostly bounced around. Ugh. Jennifer called it "not your best vocal performance" (ya think?) but said she commands the stage "like a superstar." (Really?) Harry called her "a contender" but said she seemed nervous. Keith said that the show wasn't as much about the performances (umm, okay) but about "watching you grow, and what you can do from here forward." I think she's in trouble, despite her promises to bring her tuba on the show.
So when you choose to a sing a song that defines you, would you choose one called Beautiful Disaster? Well, inexplicably, Kristen chose the aforementioned Kelly Clarkson song, and although the song is about loving a guy despite his flaws, Kristen explained that she was interpreting it to be about her, because she got into the top 13 on a wild card and needed to go for it, and whatever. Well, she didn't go for it. She's beautiful, and has a good voice, but her performances I've seen on the show have absolutely no oomph to them. She certainly has more talent than previous "pretty" contestants, but if she gets lucky and stays on the show past this week, she has to have (and I can't believe I'm saying this) a "moment." Keith said Kristen is a "really strong pop singer" but wasn't wowed, and Jennifer told her to "stop thinking and sing."
Dear Ben: stop trying so hard. Maybe you really are the small-town country guy who's not comfortable on social media, but asking, "Whatever happened to the Polaroid camera?" when talking about Instagram smacks of pretension. (And small-town country guys don't wear a leather baseball cap, a vest, and a tie.) He sang Johnny Cash's classic Folsom Prison Blues, which Paul McDonald sang during Season 10. Apparently Ben (or "Briley," as Ryan likes to call him, as if they're fratboys or whatever) opens every gig he plays with this song. It was really, really fast (even faster than Paul's version), and although he hit some good notes, at times his voice sounded both nasal and too high. Keith said the tempo was so quick that "Johnny might have done that a time or two with the help of a stimulant." He also told Ben to be careful when he entertained "not to sacrifice artistry for kitsch." Jennifer said it was the best performance so far (damned with faint praise, considering what had come before), and Harry said he gained respect for Ben because he "picked a song from our country's history." (Wonder what would have happened if he chose a Scott Joplin number, or perhaps a Revolutionary War ditty. I kid.)
C.J. sang Darius Rucker's Radio, and, Darius Rucker this guy is not. I guess he must have shown the judges something in Hollywood that has made them such a huge fan, but I've not been impressed with anything he's performed to date, and I wouldn't have given him a wild card last week. I get he's going for some gravel in his tone, but a lot of times he just sounds off-key to me (and it's not just the ear monitors). Jennifer said it was a lot of fun, that he may have had pitch problems (no "may" about it, J.Lo) but she could feel his energy. (He wasn't nearly as energetic as his cousin dancing in the audience!) Harry said that C.J. has a "cry" in his voice, and it has spoiled him, so he was disappointed that C.J. didn't show that off in this song. Keith said that C.J. emulated Darius Rucker's combination of "country, soul, and R&B swagger." Disagree.
MK decided to change things up and not sing a ballad, instead choosing Allen Stone's Satisfaction, a more uptempo song which I, like J.Lo, had never heard before. I really like MK and I'm excited she's getting the type of response she is on the show, but a tiny piece of me can't help but wonder if people are pandering to her in an effort to overcompensate. I actually thought this wasn't a very good performance vocallyI like the richness of her tone but her high notes tend to wobble, and this song had a lot more background vocals to distract. But the crowd and the judges seemed to really like it, although Keith said at times it looked like she was "waiting for the next line" of the song. Jennifer said that MK showed "confidence in patches" but sometimes looked like a deer in headlights, while Harry said that MK's voice never fails her. Guess it's another case of something sounding better in the studio than on television.
I really enjoyed Majesty's performance last week, and I felt she topped that with this week's rendition of Janelle Monae's Tightrope. She looked great, sounded terrific, and is a very strong performer. I loved the song choice, and so did the judges. (I never thought I'd hear Janelle Monae on this show, and I'm really excited about it.) Jennifer praised Majesty's style, telling her there's no one else like her, and Keith called her "a mystery," saying "it will be fun to watch the mystery of who you are unravel over the weeks."
Jena (who apparently told Ryan her hair was actually "s--t brown" under the black dye before her performance) sang Coldplay's The Scientist, which was previously performed by Season 9 semi-finalist Katelyn Epperly. I love Jena's voice and think she's definitely a strong contender on this show. I really liked this performance, although it seemed a bit too slow at times. The judges praised her "unique" and "powerhouse" voice, while Harry praised her "interesting choices on a preexisting melody."
If Elliot Yamin and Lee DeWyze had a love child, it would look like Alex. He's probably my favorite contestant, and this week he sang Jason Mraz's A Beautiful Mess. (Boy, I would have loved it if he sang Mraz's If It Kills Me.) I really liked this performance, his singing in a single red spotlight, despite the swaying of the audience (which I hate), although I think he may need to pick things up a little bit in a week or two. Harry inexplicably asked if he could "try to sing in tune" because he knows Alex can. (What? No ear monitor excuses there, Harry?) He also didn't like the "inward, introspective" nature of the performance. Keith disagreed, saying he felt pulled into Alex's performance. J.Lo agreed with Keith, calling the performance a really nice change, and she said she was "caught up in the mood." I'm going to reserve my judgment on Harry's comments, but I hope this isn't a contestant he tries to sabotage in favor of someone less talented.
Those of you who know me know I don't often admit I'm wrong, but Jessica's performance will cause me to do so. I was utterly underwhelmed by her performance last week, and since I didn't watch any of her earlier performances, wrote her off as a country performer who liked to pretend she was edgy. But her rendition of Shinedown's The Crow and the Butterfly was excellenthard, gritty, and soulfuland I totally get her now. J.Lo said Jessica gave her "goosies" and that her performance was her favorite so far. Harry praised the "dark, haunting quality" of her voice. Really liked this.
Emily chose to sing P!nk's Glitter in the Air (otherwise known as the song P!nk sang at the Grammys while dangling in the air). She did really well with it, and I thought her voice was really powerful but she didn't overdo it. J.Lo said she was "gushing" over Emily's performance, while Harry praised her for singing the melody and conveying the emotions of the song well. Keith called it "a beautiful vocal from top to bottom," but said that what P!nk brings to her performances is a mixture of ying and yang, of sensitivity and a little edge, and cautioned Emily not to forget "the yang" when she sings. Which, of course, led to the inevitable sophomoric joking of "who's got the yang." Because you can never truly get the judges away from Beavis and Butthead-like humor. (Heh-heh-heh.)
The show's resident heartthrob, Sam, sang Matchbox 20's Unwell. It was perfectly pleasant and on-key, but nothing super exciting. The ladies in the crowd went wild, as expected. Harry called the performance "nice," but said he wished that Sam's vocal mirrored the song's "messed up" vibe. J.Lo called Sam a "quiet storm" (the same words she used to describe MK earlier) and said he can sing perfectly, but he needs to start believing it. I guess for a good-looking, talented 17-year-old on this show, a little humility is refreshing.
The first true pimp slot of the season went to the "resident rocker," Caleb. He sang Rival Sons' Pressure and Time, another song I'd never heard of. I think Caleb has tremendous pipes and a great range, but I hope he'll throw some, to quote Paula Abdul (unbelievably), light and shade into his future performances. I'll need a little variety or I'll start to get a little bored, but there's no denying his talent and showmanship. Keith said Caleb needs to figure out who he is and convey that a little stronger in his performances, J.Lo said he seemed "ready for the rock star life" but he "has the goods to back it up," and Harry told Caleb that much like Journey, when they needed a new lead singer, found Arnell Pineda, if Rival Sons ever needs a new singer, Caleb should get the job.
All in all, it was a pretty good show, although I thought about turning it off after the first three performances. But it was tremendously refreshing to hear some different songs, even (amazing!) some current ones. I'm going to try and remain optimistic that the stronger contestants will remain on the show and the, well, less strong ones will be voted off first, but we'll see how long my optimism lasts.
Who should be in the bottom three: Malaya, Kristen, and either Dexter or C.J.
Who will be in the bottom three: Malaya, Kristen, and either Dexter or (although I hope not) Alex
Until tonight's mess of a results show...
Monday, February 24, 2014
Yeah, I know. Most critics do their "best of" lists at the actual end of the year they're highlighting. But then again, most critics have the chance to see all of a particular year's movies by the end of that year, and don't have to find themselves at the mercy of when the movies will be released to the "general public."
I saw 47 movies this year. That's a few more than 2012. Not bad. So now that I've had the chance to see all of the 2013 movies I could (I missed a few), I've ranked my 12 favorite movies of the year. Most won't surprise you, and you've probably seen many if not most of them, but perhaps you'll add one or two to your list of movies you need to see.
In a future blog post over the next week, I'll talk about which actors I thought gave the year's best performances, so what you'll find out is that in some cases, fantastic acting didn't make for a fantastic movie. For all except one, I linked to my full movie review if you want to read more.
Her: Admittedly, I'm a total sap, but Spike Jonze's smart, sensitive, thought provoking movie has so much going for it even without my emotional weakness. This commentary about a not-too-distant future where connecting with people will become so difficult that a sad sack loner (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and no one bats an eye, is funny and poignant, with lines I wish I could have recorded so I could use them again. Read my original review.
Fruitvale Station: Still can't get this powerful movie out of my head. It's based on the true story of Oscar Julius Grant III, a 22-year-old resident of California's Bay Area, who was inexplicably shot and killed by police at a BART station in the early hours of January 1, 2008. The movie follows Oscar (a fantastic Michael B. Jordan) on New Year's Eve Day, as the ex-con tries to put his life completely on track. You see what a good heart and soul he has (although you get glimpses of his troubled past in some flashback scenes), and how determined he is to make things work, job-wise and relationship-wise. Should have been a Best Picture nominee, at the very least. Read my original review.
12 Years a Slave: Emotionally searing, painful, and powerful, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, truly brilliant), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his family in the 1840s, who is accused of being a runaway slave while traveling in Washington, DC. He winds up on the plantation of a sadistic slave owner (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender), and becomes the friendand sole hope for salvationof fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in a starmaking performance of dazzling proportions), with whom the plantation owner is obsessed. Absolutely fantastic movie, although difficult to watch. Should absolutely win Best Picture next Sunday. Read my original review.
American Hustle: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with a paunch and a bad comb-over) is a con artist married to the flighty, unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), while smitten with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, never sexier). Irving and Sydney begin scamming people as a team until they run afoul of ambitious detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, complete with Robert Reed's perm from The Brady Bunch). He forces the pair into working for him, setting people up that he can then arrest. The ultimate scam they set up seems too good to be true—convincing Camden Mayor Carmine Pulido (Jeremy Renner) to take a bribe from a fake sheik in order to rebuild Atlantic City. Richie decides that's not good enough—he wants the scam to entrap some members of Congress as well. (This is based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s.) And that's when things start to go completely haywire. Smart, tremendously well-acted, and funny. Read my original review.
The Way Way Back: While this isn't a film that blows you away, nor is it one that surprises with its plot, it was tremendously heartwarming and funny, and full of memorable performances. Shy, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) has to spend the summer at the beach house of his mother's horrible boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, playing against type), who is abusive to everyone, especially Duncan. To escape, he finds a haven at Water Wizz, a water park straight out of the 80s allegedly managed by manchild Owen (a fantastic Sam Rockwell). This film combines the lightheartedness of summer comedies with actual sensitivity and intelligence, although it hit a little too close to home for me in a few places (and those who know me well will know why). Read my original review.
Short Term 12: Short Term 12 is the name of a foster care facility that focuses on teenagers with emotional issues. It's supposed to be a short-term solution until the county figures out a more permanent solution for these kids, but some wind up staying there for more than a year. The home is run by Grace (Brie Larson) and her goofy-but-lovable boyfriend Mason, who are fiercely protective of the kids but are not willing to cut them any slack. This is a quiet powerhouse of a film that keeps surprising you every time you expect it to take the usual turns. You learn surprising details about the characters, which give you more insight into their actions. In a perfect world, Brie Larson would have gotten a Best Actress nomination and Keith Stanfield, playing one of the home's residents, would have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Read my original review.