Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Books of the Year 2012

This year, I’m listing my favorite books with some amount of trepidation. It hasn’t been a good year for reading. Normally, I love to read. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. But this year, I found it incredibly difficult to focus on practically any book that I picked up. I think a combination of factors led me to this state. I won’t go into them here. As we speak, I’m trying to get back into the reading groove.

My total for the year came in at an abysmal 24 books. That’s an average of two books per month. However, I finished the vast majority of those books in the first half of the year. Of these 24 books, 14 were fiction; 10 were non-fiction.

None of the ones listed here gripped me, but they were all books that I enjoyed immensely. I should note that I’m currently reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann. I don’t anticipate finishing it before midnight tomorrow, so it will have to go in with my 2013 books. However, if that weren’t the case, it would be my top book of the year.

So, without further hedging, here are my top books of 2012:

5.  Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden

The true story of two young, unmarried society women who, in 1916, traveled to the wilds of Colorado (and they were the wilds back then) to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. The courage, pluck, and resourcefulness of our ancestors never cease to amaze me.

4.  The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

A book about all the delightful ways we used to poison each other and ourselves (both unintentionally and not), set against the backdrop of Jazz Age NYC, an era that gave birth to modern forensic science. This one satisfies us morbid folk while also explaining the science of poisons in an easy, accessible manner.

3.  Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

The true story of the September 8, 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Written in interesting detail & chilling.

2.  The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

I honestly don’t know how anyone wouldn’t want to read this book. In 1897, a Swedish adventurer by the name of S.A. Andree tried to fly a hydrogen balloon to the North Pole. Aren’t you just dying of curiosity to see how that turned out for him? Luckily for you, this book is short, easily readable, and utterly fascinating.

1.  Coroner’s Journal by Louis Cataldie

Cataldie served as chief coroner of Baton Rouge for a number of years, including during the mid-1990s, when the city was terrorized by not one, but two serial killers at the same time. During his years of service, Cataldie kept extensive notes in a journal, and this book is the result. I found his writing style very accessible, and I liked the way the book was laid out: crazy accidental deaths in one chapter; suicides in another; child deaths in another, etc. You knew what you were going to get with each chapter. Really interesting stuff. I think I finished this book in two days.

So, there you have it. All non-fiction books again this year. I also see now that, with the exception of #1, they all fall within my favorite historical time period, 1890s-1920s. What am I going to do if I ever run out of things to read about that era? Let’s hope we never find out.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

AIIW: Video Game High School

Movie Stats:
Released 2012
American, in English
Directors – Matthew Arnold, Brandon Laatsch, and Freddie Wong
Stars – A bunch of kids whose names you probably won’t recognize, but who you may have seen in their various parts on both the big and small screens; Zachary Levi (of “Chuck” fame); and Freddie & Jimmy Wong, brothers and YouTube sensations.

Plot Summary:
In a world where people who excel at video games are revered, nerdy Brian D (Josh Blaylock) is considered your typical hapless loser until the day he accidentally scores an in-game kill against The Law (Brian Firenzi), the most awesome player around. This lucky shot lands Brian a place at Video Game High School (the Hogwarts of this ‘verse), where he quickly falls for the lovely Jenny Matrix (Johanna Braddy) and meets his new best friends, Ted Wong (Jimmy Wong) and Ki Swan (Ellary Porterfield). However, life at VGHS is fraught with danger, particularly since The Law is also there. Zachary Levi plays Ace, a VGHS teacher, and Freddie Wong plays Freddie Wong, also a teacher & Ted’s father.

Bad Stuff:
Consider any criticism listed here as more like minor quibbles, because I truthfully enjoyed the heck out of this movie.

I could see how this movie might not be accessible to a non-gaming audience, as it uses a lot of gaming jargon and in-jokes. While I’m not a gamer, my husband is, so I still got most of the references. On the flip side, I could see how the movie might annoy some who are really into gaming, especially those who take it all a bit too seriously, as it’s rather goofy & over-the-top.

It’s pretty cheesy, but I’m 99.9% certain that was the point.

The robot character is super annoying. Thankfully, he’s not in it very much.

Good Stuff:
The special effects were fantastic. The other night, the husband and I were actually watching some of Freddie Wong’s YouTube videos. At the time, I was unaware that Wong and his video-making partner Laatsch were two of the directors of this film. I could definitely see their influence here.

There were some great performances. I particularly enjoyed Firenzi’s portrayal of devious villain The Law, Rocky Collins’s hilarious turn as the Drift King, and Benji Dolly’s ultra-suave and yet ultra-trying-too-hard Games Dean. Also, there was excellent chemistry between Blaylock & Braddy, who I’ve heard are a real-life couple.

It was simply a lot of fun. This movie has heart and a lot of humor. There are some great laugh-out-loud one-liners. The makers really seemed to enjoy playing with a lot of different themes. I think we’ve all heard how grueling movie-making can be, so I tend to like films where it seems like everyone involved had a good time bringing the material to life.

The Verdict
I’ll admit that the plot doesn’t cover any new ground. This is a classic underdog-makes-good story. Even so, it’s definitely not for everyone. I’ve been reading some reviews online. It seems like most folks either love it or hate it; there don’t seem to be a lot who feel “meh” about it. I happen to fall into the love category. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece. It won’t be winning any awards. However, it was far more enjoyable than most movies I’ve seen in the last couple of months (and that includes the dreary Skyfall).

I give this movie 4.25 stars. Shut up, it’s my blog, I can give movies quarter stars if I want.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

AIIW: Holiday Edition

While I’m stuck on a surprisingly long wait list at the library for my next Oscar winner, Gone with the Wind (Seriously? I thought I was the only one who’d never seen this movie.), I’ve been watching more stuff on Netflix lately.

‘Tis the busy season at work, which means I’ve been spending my extended shifts entirely on my feet, running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I’m pretty brain dead these days. That means that I don’t have much energy or attention span, so my interest has turned to the truly important things in life, like watching cheesy Christmas movies. Here’s a recap of the 3 I recently watched:

Santa Claus: The Movie
Released 1985 (USA). Stars: Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, David Huddleston & Judy Cornwell. Director: Jeannot Szwarc.

The first half of the movie focuses on how Santa & Mrs. Claus (Huddleston & Cornwell) get the “job” of distributing toys to all the children of the world. The second half focuses on the conflict between Santa and his eager elf Patch (Moore), who has a lot of modern, innovative ideas, which Santa chooses to ignore. When Patch feels unappreciated, he runs away and naively joins forces with the evil toy-maker B.Z. (Lithgow), hoping to prove to Santa how useful he can be.

This is truly a kids’ movie. I know I saw it once when I was a child. It’s dopey and sappy, full of both plot holes, cheese whiz, and stuff that's not remotely believable. And yet, I find a certain charm in it. I think the movie is both slow & cumbersome in the first half, but I enjoy the second half when it focuses on Dudley Moore. I especially enjoyed the interaction between Moore & Lithgow, who play very well off of one another. Also, Lithgow is at his mustache-twirling, over-the-top best in this one.

If you have no tolerance for cheesy movies, I don’t recommend it (actually, I don’t recommend practically any Christmas movie then, haha), but I enjoyed it enough to give it 3 stars.

Holiday Engagement
Released 2011 (USA). Stars: Bonnie Somerville, Shelley Long, & Jordan Bridges. Director: Jim Fall.

Okay, you’ve certainly heard this one before. Hillary (Somerville) is constantly hounded by her mother (Long) about how she needs to finally settle down and marry the perfect man. So when her fiancé Jason (Chris McKenna) breaks up with her just days before they’re supposed to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her family, she hires actor David (Bridges) to play the role of Jason. Hilarity (not really) ensues. And of course, Hillary and David fall in love for reals.

Honestly, there’s no new ground covered here. You’ve heard it all before. It all wraps up in a nice tidy bow, way, way more nicely & quickly than things tend to work out in real life. However, sometimes I find that I really enjoy just sitting down & watching something that I know is going to turn out happily. The acting is pretty good in this one. Jordan Bridges is dang cute (yes, he’s one of the Bridges). Additionally, I admired the movie for trying to take on a more serious theme, about loving the one we deserve rather than loving the one we’re with, i.e. you don’t have to date a jerk just because he/she is “perfect” on paper.

On a side note, wouldn’t it be nice if there were more movies that had the message: “It’s totally fine if you never get married, as long as you’re happy”? I digress.

I’d say that this movie is pleasantly rote. It’s what I like to call “a light bit of confection.” I give it 3 stars.

Christmas Cupid
Released 2010 (USA). Stars: Christina Milian, Ashley Benson, Jackee Harry, & Chad Michael Murray. Director: Gil Junger.

Sloane Spencer (Milian) is a self-centered publicist bent on “trading up” on men until she can find the right one to further her career & life. Her current project is throwing the premiere party for her troubled celebrity Caitlin Quinn (Benson), thus earning herself the coveted VP position at her firm. However, when Caitlin dies in a drinking mishap, she returns to Sloane in the form of a ghost, charged with helping Sloane see the errors of her self-centered, man-eating ways. Jackee Harry plays Sloane’s mother & Chad Michael Murray plays an old love, “the one who got away.”

It’s “A Christmas Carol” meets a stupid romance movie, and it’s pretty awful. The story is a jumbled mess. Random, large amounts of time pass where Sloane apparently works really hard at her job, which we never see. Sloane is such a horrible person throughout 95% of movie that I found myself kind of hoping she would end up dying alone in the hospital after all. Her redemption in the last 5 minutes of the film wasn’t believable, nor was the Murray character’s forgiveness of her (seriously, what she did to him in this movie, no sane person would have forgiven her). Christina Milian was terrible. I’ve never seen her in anything else, so I don’t know if it was a typical performance. Chad Michael Murray looked like he was in physical pain throughout the whole movie.

At least Ashley Benson was delightful. I give this movie 2 stars (it wasn’t Metal Tornado levels of bad, after all).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best Picture: "You Can't Take It with You," 1938

Movie Stats:
Released 1938 (France) [Don’t ask me, that’s what IMDB says.]
American, in English
Director – Frank Capra
Stars – Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, and a whole bunch of other people you’ll recognize if you’ve ever watched movies from the 1930s and 40s

Plot Summary:
Stenographer Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) works at a bank, where she falls in love with Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), VP & son of the bank president. There’s just one problem: Alice comes from an eccentric, middle-class family, while Tony was born into uptight, snobby wealth. When the two families meet, will love prevail? And which family’s way of life will prove to be more meaningful? Lionel Barrymore plays Alice’s grandpa, Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the family.

Bad Stuff:
The central message of this movie – money isn’t everything – is extremely heavy-handed. Ironically, I’d be the last person to disagree with such a message. I feel that American culture in particular, and human culture in general, is far too obsessed with monetary wealth, to a point that is unhealthy. However, I don’t need my movies to bludgeon me over the head with their messages. A little subtlety goes a long way. I was turned off by the preachiness (I seriously rolled my eyes at some points).

There was a certain naïveté to it that grated on my nerves. Again, I’m the last person to disagree with the idea that people should get to do what they want with their lives. Go ahead and quit your 9-to-5 job to pursue your dreams, but don’t expect things to be all sunshine and puppies from there on out. And people aren’t always going to be nice to you and help you out just because you’re a good person. I know, I know, it’s just a movie, but I guess I expect my Oscar winners to contain a little more realism.

Good Stuff:
Man, was it nice to watch an Oscar winner that wasn’t a melodrama (the only other non-melodrama so far has been “It Happened One Night,” also a Capra movie). There is a lot here that’s just plain fun.

One of the subtler messages was one that I really enjoyed: that family – either the one we’re born into or the one we create – is our most valuable asset.

All of the actors had great chemistry with one another. They looked like they had a blast making this movie, and that made it more fun to watch.

This was the first of these older Oscar winners I’ve seen where I thought the varying messages (rich vs. poor, monetary success vs. happiness, etc.) would resonate with modern-day people. It’s always fascinating to me to look back and see that we’ve been talking about many of the same issues for decades (or perhaps centuries). It seems to me that it really is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Verdict:
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Frank Capra. He directed a lot of well-loved movies, including one of my all-time favorites, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Since this movie is based on a play, and the screenplay wasn’t written by Capra, I won’t blame the heavy-handedness on him. However, it put a serious damper on my enjoyment of the film.

In this day and age, I don’t think a movie like this would even be considered for a Best Picture Oscar. I can imagine why it was beloved in its day, though. Released while the country was still deeply mired in the Great Depression, I can see why its message would have resonated with a lot of people. At a time when most people didn’t have a lot, it must have been nice to hear that it didn’t matter, that as long as you have the people you love, everything will be all right. It’s a comforting message.

I should probably note that I’ve been in an emotional cul de sac lately, really down in the dumps. It’s possible that my review would be less prickly if I were feeling better. As much as I may sound like I hated it, though, I really didn’t. It was an enjoyable piece of fluff, although not one I’m likely to ever watch again (unlike “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which I’ve seen about a billion times).

I give this movie 3 stars.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Best Picture: "The Life of Emile Zola," 1937

Movie Stats:
Released 1937 (USA)
American, in English
Director – William Dieterle
Stars – Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Gale Sondergaard

Plot Summary:
Pretty much as advertised by the title. The story follows the famous French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) from his early days as a starving artist with his buddy, the painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), through his successes and excesses, and finally into his involvement with the Dreyfus Affair and his untimely death a few years after his criminal libel trial in 1898. Joseph Schildkraut stars as the wrongly-accused Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and Gale Sondergaard is his wife, Lucie.

Bad Stuff:
If you don’t know anything about Emile Zola (as I did not) or the Dreyfus Affair (which I very dimly recalled from history class), you might want to brush up before watching, because the movie assumes your familiarity with both topics.

Melodrama. Lots of melodrama.

It drags a bit once it gets to Zola’s 1898 trial. Up until that point, it zips along at a rather admirable pace.

Good Stuff:
Paul Muni was excellent as Zola. I compared pictures; he even looked a lot like him. I read later that Muni was well known in his day for “inhabiting” his characters.

It did a good job of making both Zola and Dreyfus sympathetic, even though they were frequently reviled in their time. I found myself feeling angry on their behalf. You know a movie is good when it makes you feel something for its characters, whether that something is good or bad.

The female characters were pretty tolerable. Of course, they don’t have a whole heck of a lot to do for most of the movie (except for Lucie, towards the end), but I’ll take it as a victory.

The Verdict:
Honestly, I really enjoyed this one, almost in spite of myself. I’d dreaded seeing it for so long because it sounded boring. On the contrary, until it got to the trial, I thought it was very engaging and even kind of fun. The slowness of the trial scene didn’t drag it too far down in my estimation, though. If I were going to recommend Oscar winners, this one would probably end up in my top 15.

I give it 3.5 stars.