Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movie Review: "The Bling Ring"

One of Sofia Coppola's strengths as a filmmaker is her ability to take what we think we know—lonely actors, relationships, royalty, and the cult of celebrity—and skew our perspectives. That talent is on fine display in The Bling Ring, an enjoyable if slight movie based on the true story of a group of California high school students who, in 2008, broke into the houses of their favorite celebrities (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge) and stole clothing, jewelry, and money.

Insecure Marc (Israel Broussard) is a new student in a transitional high school. His low self-esteem (he doesn't think he's as attractive or worthy as his peers) makes him determined and somewhat desperate to fit in. He meets Rebecca (Katie Chang), who quickly takes him under her wing and introduces him to her circle of friends—Nicki (Emma Watson, the anti-Hermione), her surrogate sister, Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and gravelly-voiced Chloe (Claire Julien), all of whom are more interested in clubbing, taking drugs, and shopping than academics, which suits Marc just fine.

Marc and Rebecca bond over their mutual love of celebrities, fashion, and gossip, although Rebecca's brazen thievery surprises and unnerves him. But he considers Rebecca his best friend, and since he finally feels as if he belongs, he keeps most of his concerns to himself. And then Rebecca ups the ante from breaking into random empty houses to breaching celebrities' inner sanctums. (You won't believe how easy this activity becomes, and you can't help but wonder whether this was truly the case back in 2008.)

The pair, with their friends tagging along from time to time, identify celebrities who are out of town (God bless the internet) and break into their houses, stealing designer clothes, jewelry, money, and drugs, sharing and selling the spoils (and celebrating their finds in clubs and via social media). They don't really try and hide what they're doing, and no one really shows remorse—the general sentiment is that these celebrities have far more than they need, so why shouldn't they take some?

As you might imagine, the gig eventually comes to an end, to Marc's simultaneous relief and sadness. And as the group tries to spin what they've done (some more successfully than others), you find yourself wondering how disconnected these kids are from the adults in their lives, and how we as a society have built celebrities—particularly those more famous for being famous than for actually doing anything—into somewhat of a revered class yet one deserving of some humility and comeuppance, particularly from those less fortunate.

What makes The Bling Ring so enjoyable is both the audacity of the schemes the group pulls off as well as the strength and naturalness of the actors' performances. (All but Watson have done few if any movies prior to this.) Chang is marvelous as the icy ringleader; you understand why Marc wants to be her friend and stay in her good graces. Broussard is refreshingly vulnerable and conflicted in his role as the film's imperfect consciousness, and Watson has both the self-centered California attitude—and the dialogue—down pat.

I enjoyed this movie a great deal, but in the end, Coppola's decision to keep the audience at arm's length from the characters undercuts the film's power, so it didn't quite wow me. It's still definitely worth seeing, perhaps when it comes to whatever streaming or DVD rental service you use, if for no other reason than to marvel at what this group of kids pulled off.

Movie Review: "This is the End"

Where do you stand on stupid-funny movies?

You know what I'm talking about—those movies which, depending upon the mood you're in, either make you laugh so uproariously you can't breathe, or leave you scratching your head, wondering why everyone around you is laughing. The kind of movies you either furiously love or consider walking out of. I'm sure you've had experiences on both ends of that spectrum.

Well, This is the End is definitely one of those movies. At times laugh-out-loud hysterical, at times puerile, silly, obscene, and downright disturbing, this is a movie you need to be in the right frame of mind to see. But it's definitely funny as hell in many instances, even while it's improbable, juvenile, and a little gross.

All the actors in this movie play themselves, so there's no needing to keep characters' names straight. Jay Baruchel comes to visit old friend Seth Rogen in Los Angeles, despite his professed dislike for the city and the Hollywood circuit. The two eat burgers, smoke a lot of weed, and play lots of video games, before Seth convinces a reluctant Jay to accompany him to a party at James Franco's house. The party is exactly as you might imagine a party at James Franco's house would be, full of a motley crew of celebrities, drugs, and pretentious conversation. Everyone is there—Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and one of the film's favorite punchlines, Michael Cera.

While on a run for some cigarettes, Jay and Seth come face to face with what appears to be the start of the rapture—destruction is everywhere, while others are being sucked up into the sky on beams of light. When they race back to Franco's house, the ground starts opening up and all of the celebrities are killed—except Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Robinson, and party crasher Danny McBride. The six hole themselves up in Franco's house, a fortress from the madness, with a small amount of food and drugs. And hijinks ensue.

This is the End plays on the quirky behaviors and traits of the actors—Rogen's laugh and his tendency to do one type of role all the time, Franco's ambiguous sexuality, Hill's conceit over being nominated for an Oscar—and mines them for laughs, and does so with the dynamics between the characters as well. You don't know where the movie ends and reality begins, not that it really matters.

After a while, as the movie slips into increasingly improbable and ridiculous (but still funny) territory, it becomes more about five guys co-existing in a house while the world is ending. It's a meditation on the cult of celebrity and whether these people we see in the movies and on television are like we imagine they'd be, or if they're different. And if they are the same, are they worth saving?

For me, this was a perfect summer comedy. I didn't have to think, I laughed so hard at times my sides hurt, and I wondered how they'd tie the whole thing up in the end. While I wouldn't want to be stuck in a house with these guys at the end of the world, I didn't mind—and actually enjoyed—spending nearly two hours with them. And you can't ask for much more, especially if you pay matinee prices.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Dear me...

For ESPN The Magazine's recent Kids in Sports Issue, 12 professional athletes were asked to write letters to their younger athletic selves.

There's reigning U.S. Open champion and Gold Medalist Andy Murray, who at 26 years old, reminisced about being thrown out of the finals of the Scottish junior championships because of his temper. He told his 12-year-old self, "Even if I could stop you, I wouldn't. You need to see that racket fly through the air in Craiglockhart — fly for what seems like forever, until it lands by the umpire's chair and slides under the fence, out of reach. You need to feel sick about getting thrown out of a Scottish junior championship that you should've won."

He continues by saying, "There will be this thing called YouTube, Andy. And when you're my age, you'll use it to look back on your first pro appearance at Wimbledon. It will take you another six years, but when you get there, you'll be skipping around the court wearing such a big smile that your face almost cracks. That's when you'll realize you love this game too much to let something as childish as anger get in your way. You'll start breathing evenly and keeping your head clear on court changes. You'll learn to put tactics over temper. And you'll have so many memorable matches, it will make your 12-year-old head spin."

Athletes included in this series include Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, star soccer player Abby Wambach, NBA star Dwight Howard, NASCAR star Jeff Gordon, and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos.

But my favorite letter is from LA Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers, who came out of the closet a few months ago and retired briefly before returning to the game he so loves. He told his 14-year-old self:

"You're walking around with a cramp in your stomach. You feel trapped within yourself. The pressure of being a high school freshman and playing for the U16 national team is stressful enough. But on top of that you're worried that you're different from everyone, especially your teammates. And you think that if they figure out who you are, you won't be able to play the sport you love, or your family won't agree with it. Sometimes you pray and think: I don't wanna live through this. Why can't I be like my brothers and sisters?"

He continues, "I know I said I wouldn't tell you what your future holds, but I will tell you that everything's going to be fine -- one day you'll be happier than you ever thought possible. And while you can't envision sharing your secret now, the world is changing. People are becoming more accepting. And when the time is right, the day might come when you're ready to face the world as the beautiful person you truly are."

The whole feature is tremendously moving, in some cases humorous, and truly insightful. You can read all of the letters at

Book Review: "Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence" by David Samuel Levinson

Do we have sole possession of our lives and what happens in them, or are they fodder for artists? That is a question David Samuel Levinson seeks to answer in his intriguing but ultimately frustrating novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence.

In Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, Catherine Strayed continues to mourn the mysterious death of her writer husband, Wyatt. No one is sure whether his death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder, but he left their house one morning, ostensibly to get groceries, and never returned. Catherine's questions about Wyatt's death—as well as his life, frustratingly unhappy because of the failure of his first novel after a savage review by an influential critic—drag her down and plague her days.

Catherine's attempts to move her life forward following Wyatt's death are complicated by the constant presence of Henry Swallow, the literary critic who essentially ended Wyatt's career before it got started. Henry took a position as Wyatt's boss at Winslow College shortly before his death. Beyond the fact that Catherine blames Henry, the two share a history, as he was her former mentor and lover.

Henry's newest protegé, Antonia Lively, has also come to town. Young Antonia (significantly Henry's junior) is the toast of the literary world with the publication of her first novel, which Henry championed. But what Henry doesn't know is that Antonia's novel is essentially a retelling of an incident she was told about, a incident with ramifications on many people in her life, but Antonia doesn't care about the damage this story may inflict. And Antonia has her sights set even closer to home with her second novel, as she plans to get to the root of the rivalry between Wyatt and Henry, and the mysterious scandals in their lives, not to mention Catherine's role in all of it. Antonia infiltrates Catherine's life, which has harmful consequences.

This book had a lot of promise and I was tremendously intrigued to see how the story would unfold, and figure out what all the mysteries were. Unfortunately, the compelling parts of the plot were mired down by extremely unlikable characters, and a bizarre, unnecessary shift in narration which was supposed to provide a mysterious twist at the end, but fell flat. Catherine is so weighted down by indecision, so fraught with emotion, and you don't know what is really happening to her and what she's hallucinating. Henry vacillates between being the one willing to say the truth and someone so irritating you don't understand his appeal, and Antonia is utterly unsympathetic.

I think Levinson raises some very intriguing questions about whether our lives are, in essence, public domain for artists to use as inspiration (or steal wholeheartedly, in some cases). Unfortunately, a tremendously compelling plot got lost amidst characters who continually frustrate you.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Here's your sign...

A friend posted these on Facebook the other day and I thought they were far too good not to share.

Any wonder why people don't pay attention to signs? How could they?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Measure your life in jellybeans...

In the musical Rent, the late Jonathan Larson talked about how life was made up of 525,600 minutes, and that you should measure your life in love. I certainly can't argue with those sentiments.

I was, however, intrigued when writing my newsletter at work, I came upon a post from Ze Frank, online performance artist, composer, humorist, and Buzzfeed's executive vice president of video, in which he examined the average human lifespan, measured out in jellybeans.

It's a humorous and surprisingly moving look at life. And you might want to have some jellybeans handy...

Love wins the day...

I woke up this morning feeling immensely apprehensive about what the Supreme Court would do relative to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8, especially following the Court's decision to overturn portions of the Voting Rights Act yesterday.

Would the Court take the bold steps necessary to begin laying the foundation for marriage equality across our country? Would they allow same-sex couples married in states that have upheld marriage equality to receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples? Or would the Court decide to uphold the idea that some people are more deserving of equality than others, or that voters should decide who is worthy?

The Supreme Court decided 5-4 that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Basically, the Court explained that the states have long had the responsibility of regulating and defining marriage, and some states have opted to allow same-sex couples to marry to give them the protection and dignity associated with marriage. By denying recognition to same-sex couples who are legally married, federal law discriminates against them to express disapproval of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. This decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married must now be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.

The Court also struck down California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, on a technicality, by saying that those Proposition 8 supporters who brought the case to the Supreme Court lacked the legal standing to do so. While this wasn't the sweeping ruling that some had hoped, a ruling that would have paved the way for marriage equality in those states without it, it does move us in a forward direction. Plus, same-sex couples can begin marrying in California within a month, so anything that allows for more love to be legally recognized is more than satisfactory!

From the moment I heard the Court's decision on DOMA, I've been just on the verge of emotional. Much as President Obama's public support of same-sex marriage and the growing number of states and foreign countries that have approved marriage equality recently, I never believed I'd see these giant steps taken in my lifetime.

To quote one of Virginia's Senators, Mark Warner:
Huge victories today, but more work to be done to ensure #MarriageEquality for all Americans.
So once again, love wins. And I believe, ultimately, it will keep winning. Love is love is love, no matter who does it.

But of course...

In honor of June being National Pride Month, Grey Poupon mustard posted the above graphic on their Facebook page earlier this week.

They said, "June is National Pride month. Though the festivities technically only last a month, we recommend celebrating all year – because Pride and good taste never go out of season."

It's nice to see companies realize that they can be forward-thinking without compromising sales.

How long until One Million Moms boycotts and endorses Gulden's?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Farewell, dear Ubu...

Sad news in Hollywood with the death of Gary David Goldberg, who created Family Ties and Spin City (as well as one of the most underrated and terrific shows, Brooklyn Bridge) this past weekend. Goldberg died just a few days short of his 69th birthday after a battle with brain cancer.

Family Ties was definitely one of the "must-see" comedies of my childhood, launching the careers of Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman (with a slightly less stellar trajectory than Fox's), Tracy Pollan, and everyone's favorite Dancing in the Dark dancer, Courteney Cox, and marked Meredith Baxter Birney's return to television. I remember talking about episodes in school the next day (even on the phone with friends during the show), and certain things stick in my memory to this day, especially Billy Vera and The Beaters' At This Moment, which was playing when Ellen (Pollan) left Alex (Fox).

So, RIP, Gary David Goldberg. Thanks for the amazing memories. And to change the words to the Family Ties theme song a bit, What would we have done, Gary, without you? (Sha-la-la-la...)

Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog. (Woof!)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Movie Review: "Much Ado about Nothing"

Joss Whedon, meet William Shakespeare.

The pairing of the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (and director of The Avengers) and the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon seems unlikely, but it's tremendously successful. And there are no vampires, zombies, or superheroes in the movie, although for Whedon fans, there are many familiar faces.

Much Ado about Nothing is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, full of manipulation and sass and splendidly written lines about love, jealousy, betrayal, and revenge. Beatrice (Angel's Amy Acker) and Benedick (Angel/Buffy's Alexis Denisof) are clearly meant for each other; you can see it in the way they verbally spar, hurling insults and pretending they're insulated from ever falling in love. When Benedick arrives at the home of Beatrice's uncle, Leonato (a sly Clark Gregg), along with his companions, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), he and Beatrice immediately begin attacking each other with painfully humorous barbs that cut a little too close for comfort.

Claudio is immediately besotted with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morghese), whom Don Pedro promises to woo on Claudio's behalf. But Claudio and Hero's relationship is challenged by the manipulations of Don Pedro's angry brother, Don John (Firefly's Sean Maher). When John's first try at fomenting jealousy and discontent fails, the plot thickens as a second scheme becomes more complex. But meanwhile, Leonato, Claudio, Don Pedro, Hero, and two maids are determined to manipulate Beatrice and Benedick into falling for one another, with humorous results.

The entire movie was shot in black and white, and filmed at Whedon's home. Although the characters speak Shakespeare's words faithfully, they do so in a setting—and using props—that are somewhat anachronistic. I didn't feel this took away from the movie at all, although some diehard Shakespeare fans may find these items distracting.

I enjoyed the movie a great deal. Acker and Denisof's chemistry is terrific and they play off of each other nicely. The relationship of Hero and Claudio didn't seem as fully-formed, and Kranz does more brooding and pouting than anything else. Maher is in fine form as Don John, although you don't truly understand all of his enmity toward his brother, and his part seems almost truncated. Diamond and Gregg also turn in strong performances, plus there's a brief appearance—both amusing and slightly distracting—from Nathan Fillion (of Castle and Firefly fame).

At times, the movie drags, but for the most part, whenever Denisof and Acker are onscreen, their dialogue and chemistry ignites everyone around them. If you're a fan of Shakespeare and/or well-acted movies, I'd definitely recommend you see this. And afterward, find yourself a copy of the 1993 film adaptation, which starred Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (while they were married). Despite an unsurprisingly wooden performance by Keanu Reeves, this, too, is a tremendously enjoyable film worthy of your time and attention.

Book Review: "Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan

This may be one of the most perfect summertime books I've read in quite some time. Fun, funny, gossipy, outrageous...all of these words could be used to describe Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians, a romp through the lives of several colossally rich Chinese families living in Singapore.

When Rachel Chu, an ABC (American-born Chinese) working as a college professor in New York, is asked by her professor boyfriend, Nick Young, to spend the summer with him at his family's home in Singapore and attend his best friend's wedding, she has no idea what she's in for. You see, Nick never mentioned that he's the heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia, or that his best friend Colin, heir to a massive fortune, is marrying supermodel and hotel heiress Araminta Lee in what promises to be the storybook wedding of the year in Singapore. And neither is really prepared for the firestorm that Nick's bringing Rachel to Singapore will touch off, among women of all ages, since Nick is the most eligible bachelor in the entire country.

Meanwhile, Nick's cousin, Astrid, the ultimate high-fashion-wearing "It Girl," is having relationship troubles of her own while she's always in search of the perfect outfit or jewelry, and their cousin, Eddie, is bound and determined to have his family recognized by the society magazines as the models of fashion and style, despite the fact that he often demonstrates neither.

This is a story about the foibles of a society battling between the privileges of lineage and inheritance, and the need of the "new rich" to prove themselves. It's about respecting your family and history, and deciding whether you should continue following the path you've been expected to travel your entire life, or whether it's time to follow your own dreams and pursue your own ideas of happiness. And some people will stop at nothing to preserve what they believe is the "right way" of life, even if it means hurting the ones they love. All in the pursuit and protection of money...

I thought this was a terrific, campy, soap opera-ish type of book, full of Chinese and Singaporean history and culture, and some of the most outrageous behaviors I've ever read about. (Author Kevin Kwan has said he even toned it down a bit from real life, because his editors didn't think it would be ultimately believable.) Yet as crazy as the book gets, at its heart, the main characters are complex, sympathetic, and really enjoyable, and you find yourself drawn into their stories and invested in what happens to them.

If you like to see how the other half lives—perhaps in ways you can never imagine—you'll really enjoy this book, because it's well written and fascinating on top of everything else. But here's a warning: don't read this on an empty stomach, because Kwan's descriptions of various foods and meals will make your stomach growl—between reading this on a plane and on the Metro, I was starving!

This was great fun, and I look forward to seeing what Kwan comes up with next.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: "The Fort" by Aric Davis

It's the summer of 1987, and 12-year-old childhood friends Tim, Luke, and Scott are spending their time in their newly built fort in the woods, trying to shoot at targets with their air rifles and pretending they're fighting the Vietnamese. But even the idyllic, lazy summer can't keep their problems totally at bay, especially for Luke, who is struggling with having to be the responsible one to care for his mother and younger sisters.

One night, Tim's older sister Becca comes home from the drive-in, where she was hanging out with her friends. Or was she?

Something happened that night, and her friend Molly was kidnapped. Everyone fears the worst. And then one day, while playing in the fort with a .22 stolen from Scott's stepfather, the boys see something incredible—a girl who looked like Molly was being pushed through the woods by a man holding a gun. Luke shoots the kidnapper in the leg, but he is able to escape. And yet, when the boys tell the police what they saw, they're called liars by the police and their families, who ground them for the remainder of the summer and forbid the boys to see each other.

Regardless of the consequences, the boys know what they saw, and are determined to find the kidnapper, save Molly, and prove everyone wrong. They don't realize that in addition to parents and police detectives that don't believe them, they're up against a Vietnam veteran who is rapidly becoming unhinged. But they embark on a secret mission to uncover the truth, sneaking out late at night, and counting on bravery they never knew they had.

I thought this was a really great book, full of the nostalgic feelings of youth and childhood friendship. It's refreshing to have a "coming of age" novel that doesn't deal with kids' sexual awakening, but rather the struggles of growing up and trying to rise above the problems that weigh you down. The book works best when it focuses on the boys' stories and their mission to find Molly's kidnapper; the kidnapper's story veered a little too much into cliché, territory we've seen so many times before.

I've seen a lot of reviews that have said this book reminds them of Stand By Me, and I can see that. There may be nothing surprising in the book, but Aric Davis does a great job telling the story and getting you invested in the boys' lives, that even as you know what's going to happen you still want to keep reading. This was tremendously enjoyable, well-told, and memorable.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: "You Are One of Them" by Elliott Holt

Those of us who were culturally aware during the 1980s may remember the story of Samantha Smith. She was a young American girl who wrote a letter to then-Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov during the height of Cold War tensions, asking if he was planning to start a nuclear war with the U.S., and asking for peace. She and her family were ultimately invited to be Andropov's guests in the Soviet Union, where they spent two weeks on a media tour, and Smith became a media darling on both sides of the world. Smith was a peace activist and had just begun an acting career when she and her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1985.

Smith's story is the basis for Elliott Holt's intriguing and well-told You Are One of Them. In this book, however, it is insecure, needy Sarah Zuckerman, fueled by her mother's growing fear of nuclear war, who decides to write a letter to Andropov, only to have her idea copied by her best friend, perky Midwestern transplant Jenny Jones.

Jenny's letter is the one the media and Andropov get hold of, and while she becomes the media darling and ambassador for American children everywhere, Sarah is left in her Washington home, pining for her friend, both resenting the attention her friend is getting and feeling relieved it wasn't her letter that Andropov responded to. And when like Smith, Jenny and her parents die in a plane crash, Sarah is left to wonder whether her friendship would have lasted had Jenny lived (it was already deteriorating given Jenny's new fame), and feeling alone and aimless.

Ten years later, Sarah receives an email from Svetlana, a Russian woman who was Jenny's escort during her trip to Russia. Svetlana claims that Jenny's death may have been a hoax, simple propaganda, and encourages Sarah to come to Moscow to find the truth. Still somewhat aimless, still reluctant to let anyone else in since Jenny's death, Sarah travels to post-perestroika Russia, where she sees more of the everyday struggles of the Russian people and culture than Jenny did years ago. And as she tries to determine whether she will ever know the truth, she also tries to finally move on with her life after so long.

"I've come to understand that some people are suns that pull others into their orbit," Sarah said.

But where do you go when your emotional sun disappears? And much like in nature, can people flourish without that sun? You Are One of Them is a compelling (if somewhat improbable) story of loss, insecurity, young friendship, and finding one's self. Holt doesn't whitewash her characters' flaws, which makes them both more and less appealing at times, but you are driven to continue more because you want to know what ultimately will happen than because you have sympathy for Sarah.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: "The Execution of Noa P. Singleton" by Elizabeth L. Silver

No matter where you stand on the capital punishment debate, there's no denying the fact that a number of people sentenced to die for their crimes were actually innocent, wound up being convicted because of incompetent representation, or there was far more behind what they did than their court cases might have divulged.

While Elizabeth L. Silver's riveting The Execution of Noa P. Singleton doesn't truly approach capital punishment from these angles, these questions do come up. Noa Singleton is a convicted murderer, sentenced to death in a capital murder case. She doesn't deny what she did. She didn't testify on her own behalf during her trial, didn't offer much information to her attorneys during the laborious appeals process, and has essentially resigned herself to her fate.

Six months before her scheduled execution, she is visited by Oliver, an eager young lawyer representing a nonprofit organization, Mothers Against Death, and they are committed to blocking Noa's execution. Surprisingly, this nonprofit is headed by high-powered attorney Marlene Dixon, who happens to be the mother of the woman Noa was convicted of killing. Marlene tells Noa she has changed her mind about the death penalty and Noa’s sentence, and will do everything she can to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison. But what Marlene wants is answers: why did Noa kill her daughter? What is her story?

For someone conditioned through a tumultuous life (somewhat of her own making) not to trust anyone, and someone whose true secrets have remained so for too long, Noa at first doubts Oliver and Marlene's motivations. But as she begins her recounting of her life and the events that led up to the murder, you begin to wonder who was truly at fault for Noa's turning out the way she did. Was there more to the murder and the trial then meets the eye? And, like Noa, you begin to wonder whether Marlene truly represents her last chance at avoiding death, if she were to want to in the first place.

Some of what unfolds in this book is surprising, some not so much if you've watched any episode of the Law and Order franchise. But that doesn't make the book less compelling, or Noa's character more mercurial. You can't figure out whether to feel sorry for her or loathe her for her actions until everything is divulged, and even then, you're still not 100 percent sure how you should feel.

While The Execution of Noa P. Singleton has the makings of a great beach read, especially for fans of legal thrillers, it's far more than that. It's the story of a woman buffeted by circumstances beyond her control, yet who chooses to cede control when she shouldn't. This is a good one.

Movie Review: "Man of Steel"

There's a moment in many superhero movies when the main character first realizes they possess special powers that set them apart. The joy, surprise, and feeling of power that crosses their face when they start trying out their newfound abilities often fuels the movie with a few minutes of entertainment and exhilaration.

It's hard to say for sure, but the segment where Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) finally realizes who he is and why he has always been different than his friends and neighbors is probably one of the more uplifting moments in Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's brooding, introspective take on Superman's story. But despite the movie's dark, soul-searching nature, it's well-done and well-acted, although a tad slow and perhaps a bit too long.

If you're familiar with the story of Superman or have seen the original movie (which is 35(!) years old this year), you probably know the plot. The planet Krypton is on the verge of destruction, but noble Jor-El (Russell Crowe, less taciturn than in Les Mis) and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer) make the decision to send their infant son, Kal-El, to Earth, the only hope for Krypton's (and his) future. This makes General Zod (Michael Shannon, playing yet another character who is utterly unhinged), who has staged a coup against Krypton's leaders, very unhappy, and he vows to one day find this little child.

Fast forward, and Kal-El has become Clark Kent of Smallville, raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane—is she really old enough to be Henry Cavill's mom?). Clark knows he has special abilities and wishes he could just be a normal boy, and is warned by his father that the time will come for him to show the world his powers, but he needs to hide them away until then.

Clark becomes a mysterious drifter, saving those in crisis and quickly moving on before he is discovered. But when he follows a trail he hopes will lead him to his true self, he runs into Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, less shrill than usual), who knows something is just a wee bit different with our hero and is determined to find out the truth. And then things get pretty cray-cray for all involved.

The fighting scenes are tumultuous but the villains are almost annoyingly super-powerful, and the fights lasted a little too long for me. As I've commented before, I get a little tired of the scenes of destruction of a big city—still too eerily like 9/11 for me—and while the explosions and throwing people into buildings is cool, wouldn't people have been killed all over the place because of these fights? (Maybe I think too much.)

There's no doubt that Henry Cavill looks the part of Superman (an understatement, in my opinion) and handles the brooding nature of his character—as well as the suit—quite well. And Michael Shannon gives good evil, although I always love the point in these movies where the villain delivers a long monologue about why they're bent on destruction. Amy Adams gives a bit more sass to her Lois Lane than Margot Kidder did, although her chemistry with Cavill doesn't quite heat up until the end.

This is a very good movie, but perhaps not as good as I had hoped. I guess it is, in essence, a Superman for a more introspective time in our lives. And given the box office success, I'd imagine we'll see the return of Superman after Zack Snyder finishes the follow-up to 300.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Oh, Cheerios!!

Don't know if you heard about all the hubbub surrounding a commercial for Cheerios featuring a mixed race family, which received an inordinate amount of backlash on YouTube, so bad that the comments section needed to be closed.

What is wrong with people in our world in 2013? Prior to the closure, the comment section had been filled "with references to Nazis, 'troglodytes' and 'racial genocide,'" according to Adweek. Commenters on the cereal's Facebook page also said they found the commercial "disgusting" and that it made them "want to vomit." Other hateful commenters expressed shock that a black father would stay with his family. Seriously.

In case you hadn't seen it, here's the original commercial, called "Just Checking."

A comedian has developed a spoof of the original commercial sure to get the haters' tongues wagging. (I mean, One Million Moms—or the one mom sending out a million protest emails—is busy concentrating all their hatred on Kraft's new "Let's Get Zesty" campaign, but they'll catch on eventually.)

Here's the spoof:

Bravo to General Mills for standing firm in the face of ridiculous ignorance and hatred. Now, let's all go have a bowl of Cheerios.

Book Review: "The Illusion of Separateness" by Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy's new novel, The Illusion of Separateness, is a beautifully written, poetic book about connections, how we don't realize just how connected we are, but connections between us and others exist without our even knowing it. It's more a collection of interwoven stories than a full-fledged novel in terms of narrative, but the characters are connected in both definitive and fleeting ways.

"We all have different lives...but in the end probably feel the same things, and regret the fear we thought might somehow sustain us."

So says Martin, who in his vignette is an elderly caretaker at an assisted living/nursing home-type facility. And this quote truly embodies the very nature of this book, as Martin's story, which is more than meets the eye, is amazingly (but not unbelievably) connected to those of other characters—a deformed man who was a former German soldier during World War II, a blind museum curator, a lonely British film director, and a pair of newlyweds about to be separated by war.

Van Booy does a a masterful job teasing out the connections and giving depth and complexity to his characters. I honestly could read a book with most of these as the anchor; that's how well their stories were developed in such a short amount of time. And the connections between and among them made me smile, made me wonder, even made me choke up.

I was a huge fan of Van Booy's story collection, Love Begins in Winter, which was one of my favorite books in 2009. (I wasn't as much of a fan of his novel, Everything Beautiful Happens After, although it was well-written.) His use of language and imagery are absolutely beautiful and his storytelling ability is so emotionally evocative. While the plot may not be as cohesive as a traditional novel, it didn't matter to me.

If you're a fan of beautiful writing, read this book. Simon Van Booy's voice is one worth hearing.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

9021-oh, my...

Remember the original gang from Beverly Hills 90210?

Well, the gang has come a long way since the days of the Peach Pit and Donna Martin graduating. (In fact, Gabrielle Carteris, who played Andrea, is 52!)

Steve Sanders (aka in real-life as Ian Ziering) recently made his debut as a Chippendales dancer at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Yes, the 49-year-old(!), married father of two donned the signature bow tie, white cuffs, and tight black pants as a member of the renowned male dance show.

And since you know you're dying to see it...

Brian Austin Green may have Megan Fox, but Ian has some serious abs! Let's see who comes back out of the woodwork next...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: "The Shining Girls" by Lauren Beukes

Harper Curtis is a killer. Driven by forces even he can't explain, he is on a mission to eradicate the "shining girls," young women with potential for greatness. He encounters these women often when they are younger, when their potential isn't quite realized, leaves them with a memento, and promises they'll see him again. And they do, although they don't necessarily remember him, and if they do, it's too little, too late.

Kirby Mazrachi is the one that got away. Harper found her when she was six years old, and told her he'd find her. Fifteen years later, he savagely attacked her and left her for dead. But she didn't die. And as she gets older, she's determined to find the person responsible, no matter what the cost, and contrary to the advice of those she cares about.

How do you hunt a killer who can travel back and forth from different times, and who blends in reasonably well with those around him? At what point does the idea of this type of killer begin to seem far-fetched even to you, although you know he exists? Kirby is determined to understand this man and figure out what makes him tick, even as she begins to doubt what she finds. The book shifts perspectives between Kirby and Harper at different times in their lives, and also provides short yet in-depth looks at the other women who meet their fate in Harper's hands.

All in all, I thought this was a pretty cool concept, but the story didn't quite flow as well as I would have hoped. As you'd imagine in a book with a time-traveling killer, the story doesn't proceed in any linear fashion, but because Harper traveled to so many different places, it was difficult to keep his victims and the time frames straight in my head. And while I know that sometimes you just need to accept what happens in a story without asking questions, I wish that Lauren Beukes had spent a little time explaining how "the House," which directed Harper who to kill and from where he was able to travel to different time periods, actually worked, and why it chose the women it targeted.

I really liked Kirby's character in particular and her dogged detective work, and I also thought that Beukes did a great job fleshing out the other women that Harper killed. In a few short pages, you felt the essence of these characters and really felt sad about how they met their fate. In my opinion, the only character that could have used more depth was Harper's. He was certainly menacing and imbalanced, but I would have liked to have understood his character a little bit more than simply seeing him as an evil killer.

This is definitely a page-turner, and a somewhat frightening one at that. I think with a little more explanation of the story, it could have been even better.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: "Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club" by Benjamin Alire Saenz

This was an absolutely fantastic (if too short) story collection which captivated me from the very first sentence, moved me, and made me want more from every story. I can easily see why this collection received both the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction as well as the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction (although not every story is gay-themed).

The Kentucky Club in Juárez, Mexico, just over the U.S. border, is a touchstone in every story. Much like the characters in Saenz's stories, the Kentucky Club caters to both young and old, straight and gay, rich and poor, Mexican and American, and serves as everything from a special rendezvous spot to a pickup joint to a place of distant and pleasant memory.

Overall, the stories in this collection aren't quite happy ones, but they pack a powerful punch, and they're stuck in my head now that I'm finished with them. From the opening story, He Has Gone to Be with the Women, which chronicles the highs and lows of love, to the closing story, The Hurting Game, in which the main character struggles between falling in love and protecting himself from getting hurt, I was mesmerized by Saenz's use of language, the beauty of his narrative, and the memorable characters. Any one of these stories could be a novel on its own, because I so wanted to know what happened to the characters after the stories ended.

With only seven stories, it's difficult to pick favorites. There were stories that moved me a little more than others, but at the end of each, I wondered whether Saenz could top himself. And he often did.

If you're a fan of short stories or just magnificent, emotionally rich writing, definitely pick up Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. You'll be glad you did, but like me, you'll probably be sad when you're done.

Book Review: "A Dual Inheritance" by Joanna Hershon

So many books have been written about friendships, particularly among those from disparate backgrounds. There's something so intriguing about two people who might not ordinarily even have known each other being drawn into a lifelong friendship. Such a friendship is at the core of Joanna Hershon's well-written A Dual Inheritance, but with an interesting twist—the friendship actually ends midway through the book, although the ripples of that relationship and its demise continue to be felt throughout the remainder of the story.

Brash, self-deprecating Ed Cantowitz, a child of the middle-class suburb of Dorchester, Massachusetts, meets Hugh Shipley, the privileged heir to generations of Boston Brahmins, in their senior year at Harvard in 1962. Although they come from different backgrounds and have different views of the world, Hugh doesn't dwell on their differences, although Ed is fixated on them. Ed is driven to make a name for himself in the financial world, while Hugh seems more than content to avoid all responsibilities that await him, as he would rather travel to Africa and be a photographer. Even Hugh's relationship with Helen, although he loves her very much, doesn't fuel him with the fire to act.

As Ed pursues his financial career with unbridled zeal, Hugh travels first to Ethiopia, where he works on a film crew, and then to Morocco, where he begins to become a global humanitarian, using his family's fortunes to set up health clinics. And while the two continue to have little in common, their friendship flourishes—until one moment when everything changes and their relationship ends, for reasons only one of them understands.

This is a sprawling book that switches between Ed and Hugh's perspectives, as well as those of other characters. It spans a period of time from Ed and Hugh's first meeting to an encounter in 2010, and follows the characters across the globe, through times of great success and happiness as well as times of despair. It's a tremendously compelling story in spite of the fact that I never really cared that much for the characters, especially Ed, as I felt so much of his personality was abrasive, although as the book unfolded, you understand much of what fuels him.

How are we shaped by our friendships? Do they continue to affect us even once they've ended? Joanna Hershon does a terrific job in exploring these questions, creating complex (and flawed) characters and a narrative that never loses your attention, and may even move you. (It did me.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Cool cover song of the week...

I was a huge fan of The Cure when I was in college, partially because I really liked their music and partially because my listening to The Cure and other brooding bands (New Order, Bryan Ferry, etc.) tended to irritate my classic rock-fan roommates. (Yeah, I was like that. It is what it is.)

Even once I started living on my own, I still listened to Robert W. Smith and his bandmates, however. And when Lovesong was released in 1989, I found myself constantly singing it. The song hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains The Cure's biggest hit to date.

The band 311 covered Lovesong in 2004 for the soundtrack of the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore movie, 50 First Dates. While I like that version, I'm partial to Adele's recent cover, which appeared on her 2011 album 21. (Yes, there were songs on that album that weren't played to death on the radio.) I really like the way Adele stripped down the song and gave it a torch song-y, jazzy feel.

While I didn't watch this season of American Idol past the first episode or two, I do know that the eventual winner, Candice Glover, performed a version of Lovesong on the show that many called one of the best performances in the show's history. While the YouTube video doesn't quite do it justice, she knocked it out of the park.

Here's Adele's version:

Here's Candice Glover's version:

And for nostalgia's sake, here is the original version by The Cure:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

What a Fool Believes by Neri Per Caso

Poker Face by Daughtry

Back to Black by Ronnie Spector

I Will Survive by Cake

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by The Stereophonics

Rolling in the Deep by John Legend

Go Your Own Way by Lissie

Winner Takes it All by McFly

What a Wonderful World by Joey Ramone

Careless Whisper by Seether

I Walk the Line by Live

Dear Prudence by Siouxsie and The Banshees

Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm

Who Wants to Live Forever by Breaking Benjamin

Redemption Song by Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Love Me Tender by Chris Isaak and Brandi Carlile

All You Need is Love by The Flaming Lips

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Movie Review: "Now You See Me"

Do you believe in magic? If not, do you at least find it entertaining, or are you one of those who believes all magic is simply smoke and mirrors, or one who needs to know how every trick is achieved?

If you fall in one of the latter groups, you might not enjoy Now You See Me; but if you are the slightest bit fascinated by magic, you might enjoy this adventuresome summer romp, because it's good, twisty fun.

Four magicians—mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), cocky manipulator J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), sexy assistant-turned-headliner Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and sleight of hand artist/thief Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—are trying to make a name for themselves on the magic circuit, with various degrees of success. And one day the four are brought together by a mystery person for an incredible set of challenges that brings them everything they've ever wanted, but they need to (try and) put their egos and other issues aside and collaborate.

One year later, the so-called "Four Horsemen" headline a show in Las Vegas bankrolled by impresario Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). And during that show, amidst all of the razzle dazzle, they pull off a pretty spectacular heist—they appear to transport a randomly selected audience member into the vault of his bank—in Paris—and proceed to rob it. While they remain onstage in Vegas. Needless to say, this trick catapults their notoriety, and brings them directly into the path of disgruntled FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and the French Interpol agent assigned to the case (Mélanie Laurent).

Who is behind the bank robbery, and each subsequent scam the Horsemen pull off? Is it Tressler, looking to capitalize on his performers' fame? Is it television personality Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who has made a name for himself by exposing magicians' tricks? Is it the magicians themselves, high on the adrenaline of the increasingly grander schemes?

Now You See It has a lot of twists and turns, and it definitely kept me guessing a lot more than I thought I would. And while some of the story's core, about an elite society of magicians, may not be tremendously interesting, what makes this movie work well is the appeal and chemistry of most of the actors. Eisenberg's usual condescending cockiness couples well with Harrelson's bravado, and Fisher provides a mischievous foil for the duo. Only Franco seems a little less polished (although fun) than the other three. Ruffalo pulls off his hangdog rumpledness with a great deal of charm, and even the will-they-or-won't-they quotient in his and Laurent's relationship is appealing. And Caine and Freeman do their usual scenery chewing with a sense of amusement.

I definitely enjoyed this movie much more than I expected I will, partially because I'm willing to let myself be manipulated, and partially because I thought the movie never tried to be anything more than it was—a fun and compelling summer movie. There's not as many explosions or car chases or fights as there are in other summer movies, but there are some, and they don't feel dialed down or predictable. In the end, the charm of Now You See Me lies in the sleight of hand that director Louis Leterrier (the Clash of the Titans remake, The Incredible Hulk, and The Transporter series) gleefully pulls off. You might not see it coming, but even if you do, you won't need to ask how it's done.