La La Land (2016) / *****

la_la_land_ver2It is going to be hard for this review to properly encapsulate the pure cinematic joy that is La La Land. I’m going to do my best, but the simple version is, I deeply, deeply loved this movie; I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched it, got caught up in every single musical number, got swept up in the story, and could have easily watched it over and over again without stopping. So, yeah. I liked it just a bit.

You’d be forgiven from not expecting La La Land to be writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow up to the intense, riveting Whiplash. Yes, both movies prominently feature jazz and characters who love to perform it, but that’s where the similarities end. Whiplash was undeniably modern, while La La Land is a wonderful throwback in every sense of the word, opening with the classic “Filmed in CinemaScope” logo and a huge, sprawling classical musical number set in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam. And so, within minutes, you become aware that La La Land is a few things: it’s earnest, unironic, big and sweeping, and unabashedly old fashioned. And by the end of that first number, I was sold.

Because, let me tell you, Chazelle’s staging of musical numbers here is absolutely masterful. Eschewing cuts (as far as I could tell, every number appears to be a single, unbroken take, with maybe some cuts digitally covered up here and there) and filmed in jaw-dropping beauty, Chazelle throws himself into the musical numbers with gusto, letting trucks fly open to reveal drumkits, characters spiral up into star-filled galaxies, worlds to fade away into shadow, and so much more. It’s a director’s showcase, and Chazelle makes the most of it, turning every number into a beautiful, rich experience that you just can’t get away from, underlining every emotion, and letting all of the numbers build as they go. It’s craftsmanship of the finest level, and it’s so much of what makes La La Land wonderful – it turns the numbers from sheer dazzling technical achievement to emotional richness and glory. (Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that the songs are universally catchy and fantastic, thanks to songwriter Justin Hurwitz; from the lyrics to the melodies, there’s not a misfire in the bunch, really.)

He’s matched, at every step of the way, by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who throw themselves into their roles every bit as much as you’d hope, singing their own numbers, and even (in Gosling’s case) playing the piano for the jazz numbers. What results is a wonderful honestly and emotion to the musical numbers, one that allows Gosling and Stone to invest every number with their feelings and emotion (something akin to the beautiful and wonderful Umbrellas of Cherbourg, for you classic film fans). When you combine all of that with Chazelle’s story – in which an aspiring actress and a jazz musician meet, fall in love, and struggle with their careers – the result is magical, turning a simple character study into something romantic (and Romantic) and bigger than it would otherwise be. More than that, Chazelle invests the story with stakes beyond the relationship, letting Stone wrestle with her dream of being an actress and Gosling deal with the role of jazz in a modern world that doesn’t want it much.

The end result is something wonderful, particularly in a year (and a past few months) that have been rough on the world: it’s earnest, unironic, heartfelt, and beautiful, believing in the power of dreams, the beauty of love, and the importance of art. It doesn’t apologize for itself or make excuses; it’s a throwback done with love, a story told in sweeping gestures without snark or irony. And it all just works, becoming maybe one of my favorite moviegoing experiences in recent memory. I loved, loved, loved this movie, on pretty much every level you could love a movie, and it’s a much needed tonic after the past few months. What a treat.

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Imperium, by Robert Harris / **** ½

imperium-trilogia-de-cicero-livro-1_2014-05-12_15-11-54_0Although there’s no denying that every type of fiction has its difficulties, there are times when I’m convinced that no genre is more difficult than historical fiction. It’s not just because the genre demands more research, although that’s part of it; it’s more that great historical fiction has to balance the research and history with the telling of a story – no easy task. Too many historical novels miss the perfect balance, either losing their way in historical minutiae or getting so wrapped up in their story that the historical setting becomes an irrelevance.

Such isn’t the case with a Robert Harris’s Imperium, a riveting piece of historical fiction that follows famed Roman citizen Cicero as he raises himself from “nothing” (at least, the equivalent for a Roman citizen) to prominence and power. The first volume in a trilogy of books about Cicero, Imperium opens with Cicero studying rhetoric to improve himself, and follows him through his election for the praetorship. Along the way, we find ourselves immersed in political machinations, corruption trials, family drama, and more, watching as Cicero uses his greatest gift – his words and voice – to make a name for himself. 

It’s undeniably clear that Harris has done his research here. Even if his reputation didn’t precede him (with books like Fatherland and Enigma, among others), every page of Imperium feels like you’re reading something produced by someone who has lived and breathed this world. The book’s conceit – that it’s the memoirs of Cicero as recounted by his personal secretary Tiro – works beautifully, allowing Harris a unique voice that can both participate in the narrative and comment on it. But more than that, by making the author a contemporary of Cicero, Harris doesn’t allow himself the easy out of being able to launch into long exposition sections explaining how the Roman government works, the rules of the time, and so forth. Instead, he’s writing in the assumption that the audience knows as much as he does, and the result is that you learn an immense amount without ever feeling lectured or taught. The downside, though, is that there are times when you can’t help but wish that Harris had included a glossary, a chart, or some sort of appendices to help keep all of it straight; while I never felt lost plot-wise, there were definitely points where I would not have minded a little bit of extra context that I don’t necessarily have.

Because, make no mistake: this is a book that knows where its story is headed. Tiro isn’t writing his story as it happens, but after the fact – and as soon as we first glimpse the charismatic, powerful Julius Caesar, the book takes on the heavy weight of dramatic irony. But Tiro’s voice keeps it from being cutesy, and in fact, only makes many of the political machinations more ominous, as we see them slowly paving the way for Caesar’s ascent to power – as well as the aftermath, which would destroy democracy in Rome forever.

For all of that, though, Imperium often works best as a legal thriller, with Cicero’s crowning moments coming so often in the form of his performances in trials, governmental procedures, and similar events. More than anything else, Harris’s novel brings this fascinating man to life in all of his greatness and flaws, letting you see how he became such an iconic and important figure at a moment in history that had no shortage of them, and how he both succeeded and isolated himself at the same time. It’s informative, richly detailed, and incredibly knowledgeable, and yet it flows like the best novels, keeping you hooked on every development. And in maybe the surest sign of my feelings about it, I’ve already ordered the second book, and can’t wait to start it soon.

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Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett / *****


“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—

Death waved a hand.

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather


34532There may never again be another author like Terry Pratchett, and that’s a true, crushing loss for us, not only as readers, but just as human beings. Because, you see, if you’ve never read Terry Pratchett – well, first of all, you’re missing out. But if you’ve never read Pratchett, you may think you know what you’re missing out on. You may hear how funny he is – and he is undeniably that – or how wonderful Discworld is as a blending of the issues of our world and Pratchett’s wondrous fantasy creation, and you think, okay, I get it.

But what you don’t understand until you read Pratchett was how profound and humane he could be, and how astonishingly complex his seemingly “silly” stories could be. After all, who else could take the concept of Hogfather – in which Death takes over for Discworld’s version of Santa Claus – and turn it into a profound, complex exploration of the importance of faith, belief, and fairy tales as a fundamental aspect of humanity? No one, I’d argue…and even if someone tried, it’s hard to imagine them doing it as effortlessly, comically, and brilliantly as Pratchett manages.

Because, rest assured, this is a laugh-out-loud, embarrass yourself by giggling as you read kind of book. It’s not just Pratchett’s prose, which is always hilarious, and packed with incredible lines that most authors would give their whole careers to write (take this gem: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”). It’s his incredible storytelling, which follows any number of plotlines, juggles them effortlessly, and keeps them all moving at the same time, whether it be the story of demented Assassin Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tee-ah-tim-eh, thank you very much) and his quest to kill the Hogfather (Discworld’s Santa Claus), Susan Sto-Helit’s efforts to figure out what’s going on with her grandfather Death, or – and best of all – Death’s increasingly absurd efforts to take the place of the Hogfather, which culminates in a long set of scenes at a local mall that rank among the funniest scenes ever written, full stop.

And if that were all there was to Hogfather, that would be great. But it’s not. Instead, Pratchett uses his gleefully madcap plot – which incorporates a slew of local criminals, the secret life of tooth fairies, the god of hangovers, and so much more – to begin discussing the nature of belief, the importance of fairy tales to human existence, the nature of folk tales, and so much more. And if that’s not enough, he still manages to get in his jabs at human existence – at the cruelties of tragedies in the holiday season, the hypocrisy of charity, and so much more. It’s a book whose satirical edge is sharp and takes no prisoners, and yet never passes the chance to make you laugh, and laugh hard…but it will hit you in the gut right after it.

Which brings me back to that quote I opened the review with, and the sheer power and beauty of the ideas it’s expressing. Because Pratchett was the kind of author who could give you a scene with Death as Santa handing out swords to children as his animal escort causes havoc in the background, and have you laughing…and then leave you pondering the bewildering nature of human belief in ideals and morality. And any author who can do either of those things is worth reading…but someone who could do both really can’t ever be replaced, and reading Hogfather again for the holiday season only underlines what a genius he was and how much we lost when he left us. More than that, though, it’s a cynical, snarky, satirical look at the world – and it also has a way of making you feel better about the world, and people, than you might ever expect it to. And that’s a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) / *** ½

fantasticbeastsposterHere’s the thing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: there’s nothing really that wrong with the movie. In fact, if we’re being honest, I mostly enjoyed it; for all of its flaws (which I’ll get into), there’s something fun about getting to explore J.K. Rowling’s world of magic beyond the boundaries of Harry Potter’s experiences. And yet, for much of the film’s runtime, all I could really think was, Honestly, there’s not really much point in this movie, is there? And is this really the first of five?

And look, I get it. I get that there was money to be made. I get that someone wanted to make a movie set in Rowling’s world, and when Rowling herself says that not only does she have a story, but she wants to write the screenplay – and its four sequels – no executive in their right mind is going to pass that chance up. And if you can accept all of that, what you’ll get is a fun time at the movies. There are spells aplenty, wondrous creatures that feel imaginative and spectacular, the gleeful exploration of a magical world that stands right next to ours…all of the things that Rowling was already doing so well in the Potter books, but expanded beyond the narrow scope of those novels. And for all my frustrations with the movie, there’s something incredible about the first time we explore Newt Scamander’s menagerie in all of its scope that makes you remember what it was like reading the Potter books for the first time.

But for all of that, you can’t help but feel what I’m calling “the Marvel problem” hanging heavily over the film. That problem is this: when a movie spends so long setting up the threads of its franchise that it forgets to work as a standalone film of its own. Because, let’s be honest, the story of this film only barely hangs together. (My simple, biggest issue: Newt has literally nothing to do with the “big” story of the film, and only gets crammed in through random luck and happenstance, which is a bad foundation for a story.) It’s crammed with major characters who apparently will only be important later, unless we’re just assuming that a casting director decided to see how many great actors he could waste in thankless roles. (I truly don’t understand why Jon Voight is in this film, but by the end, I understood even less why Samantha Morton was in it. As for the Very Big Cameo near the end, I’m assuming that’s a sign-on for a bigger role to come in later films.)

But more than that, the film just veers wildly all over the place, not only in plot terms, but in tonal shifts. We shift from Eddie Redmayne’s broad physical comedy as he attempts to seduce a massive magical creature in heat to a grim depiction of a religious zealot who abuses her adoptive wards; we take on broad magical international politics and then drop them again a few scenes later, and if you’re trying to figure out exactly how easy or hard it is to cover up evidence of magic in 1920’s America, well, good luck following any of that consistency here. The characters are fine enough, sure, and I’ll be the first to admit that I quite enjoyed Redmayne’s odd, antisocial, withdrawn performance, feeling like it brought an interesting dynamic to the film. (Though it doesn’t help the feeling that the film is only barely about Newt.) But it all just feels like sound and fury that signifies nothing.

Which brings me back to this: is there any need for four more of these? I love Rowling’s wonderful world, and I love her imaginative details, her rich “mythology” that just keeps expanding. And there’s no denying that those aspects of the film are the most engaging aspects. But as we start diving back into another Big Bad Wizard arc, and back into the Potter mythology that we’ve already covered, there’s a sense that there’s a fine line between fan-service and a new series, and I’m not sure Fantastic Beasts has enough to push it beyond the former.

Given my son’s reaction, though, I’m sure I’ll still be seeing them. Which, I guess, means the studio gets what it wants, and everyone wins. It’s just that I was hoping for more of a movie, and less of another interminable franchise all about setting up the next movie.

IMDb

Michael Connelly short stories

As police procedural authors go, it’s hard to think of a more reliable or interesting one than Michael Connelly, who has been writing about Harry Bosch for more than twenty years at this point. Connelly’s novels are fascinating not just as mystery stories, but as snapshots of time – they’re uniquely contemporary, reflecting concerns of the time, and letting Bosch and the other characters age in “real time”, more or less. His short stories, by definition, aren’t as complex, and feel a bit less linked to their time and place; that doesn’t, however, make them less engaging to read, just somewhat less rich.

51a3-araeylConnelly’s Angle of Investigation, then, is interesting partially just for how its three stories ran the gamut of possibilities for Connelly’s Bosch stories, in all sorts of ways – focus, approach, scale, and even quality. For instance, one story, “Christmas Even,” walks us through the mechanics of a murder investigation; the second, “Father’s Day,” mainly revolves around Bosch’s skills in the interrogation room; the third, the title story, follows Bosch using his years of experience to unravel a cold case with only one real lead. It all serves as a nice triptych of Bosch’s skills, and a sort of mosaic that presents his strengths. More than that, each gets into a different aspect of Bosch’s life: “Christmas Even” explores his isolation and love of jazz, “Father’s Day” gets into his relationship with his daughter (a bit), and “Angle of Investigation” gets into his history on the police force.

It’s the quality of each story, though, that tells you the most about them. “Christmas Even” is far and away the best of the three: it features the most compelling case, the most involved narrative, the best emotional beats for Bosch, and the most satisfying narrative that ties it all together. “Father’s Day” isn’t bad at all, though; the interrogation scene is riveting work, and a testament to Connelly’s gift for listening as cops work their magic to get a confession that they know is coming – it’s just that the Bosch emotional beats aren’t as strong. As for “Angle of Investigation,” it’s…fine, I suppose, as long as you can get past the least interesting story by far and a narrative that feels thrown together and barely holds up. There’s a great hook there, with Bosch being asked to revisit the first dead body he ever found on the force, but the story we get is weak, and far from Connelly’s usual careful work. Nonetheless, it’s a collection well worth reading, especially for fans; you have two really great ones, and even “Angle of Investigation” is intriguing for its window into a young Harry Bosch, fresh on the beat. Rating: ****

51ct9mngyzlWhat’s more interesting, if not quite as successful, is watching Connelly try on a genre he’s never messed with before: a ghost story. “The Safe Man” still features a lot of Connelly’s trademarks: great research, a lived-in character that exhibits professionalism while still managing to be a person, and an intriguing story. The hook here is simple: Brian Halloway is an expert in safes, and he’s been called in to open and disassemble a safe that a writer has found under his floorboards. But the safe doesn’t look like anything Halloway has ever seen before, and when he posts about it to a message board, he starts hearing some disturbing rumors. And things escalate from there, as Halloway ends up getting a visit from some very persistent law enforcement agents…

It’s always a risk for an author to take on a new genre, and while “The Safe Man” doesn’t wholly work, it’s not a bad effort. It helps that Connelly approaches the story like he approaches all of his work: with research, information, and craft, all of which make the world of safes every bit as interesting as any murder investigation he could craft. And even in this short story, he shows off his usual gift for character work, quickly crafting a writer character whose arrogance is a thing to behold. The problem, really, is just the “ghost story” aspect, which doesn’t really work that well; Connelly doesn’t do a great job of hiding his ghost from the reader, and while Connelly’s ultimate revelation about his ghost is an interesting one, it doesn’t feel like enough to hang a story on. “The Safe Man” is a quick read, and it moves well; it just doesn’t have any enough meat or substance to really stick with you. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Angle of Investigation | “The Safe Man”

Ash vs. Evil Dead (Season 2) / N/A

cqj3_suviaaxghsI said this back when I finished watching the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, but really, there was no reason to have high hopes for this show. And yet, despite all expectations, it worked, delivering a show that was equal parts genuinely scary, genuinely funny, and genuinely gory. It was splattery, comical, really creepy, and just plain fun. And so, there was no way I wasn’t going to watch season two of the show, period.

And for 9 episodes, I had a blast. For most of the second season, Ash vs. Evil Dead was on a par with the first, and maybe even better. It made better use of its cast, letting Lucy Lawless occupy a more interesting morally gray zone, giving Dana DeLorenzo more chances to shine and bring Kelly to life as more than just the girl sidekick, and letting Bruce Campbell and Ray Santiago just talk back and forth and joke. More than that, the show started really enjoying itself in, playing around in the backstory of the movies and getting to cut loose a little more. We went back to Ash’s hometown, where, as you might imagine, he’s not viewed as a hero so much as “that guy who went out to a cabin with friends and came back alone”. We met his dad, which answered all kinds of questions about how Ash turned out the way he did. And, more than that, in the final few episodes, we started to literally dive back into the films themselves, as the timeline got awfully trippy and fun.

Not enough for you? The show’s not dumb, and it delivered on its promises of gore, horror, and comedy, mixing them together effortlessly and delivering some truly memorable sequences. There’s a car accident that is a brilliant moment of pitch-black comedy, a long ongoing duel with an unexpected cast member from all three films that just made me laugh, and a fight in a morgue that goes to some unspeakably gross places. So, yeah – it’s everything you’d hope for.

For nine episodes.

But the season ran ten, and it’s the finale that keeps me from being able to rate this season in any meaningful way.

If you weren’t aware that there was drama behind the scenes of the show, or that the showrunner quit while making the finale, well, you sure would be after watching the finale, which scrapped just about every major thread of storytelling the season had been setting up, delivered a bizarre, off-kilter final conflict, and wrapped everything up in a way that felt more baffling than cohesive. And sure enough, within the next day, departing showrunner Craig DiGregorio gave a blistering, name-naming interview that made his case for why the show was going down the wrong path, and explaining what he had planned for that finale.

Now, you can argue all you want about that interview – that DiGregorio is being unprofessional (probably true, though I admire his honesty), or that we’re only seeing one side of the story (true), or that he’s being a bit of a diva (probably true). And yet, none of those (valid) points detract from the fact that the finale is a complete letdown, a fizzle that feels out of step from the rest of the series, the story DiGregorio had been spinning, and the general tenor of the series. It’s doubly disappointing, because the finale for season 1 was absolutely perfect, and clinched my love for the series; more than that, DiGregorio’s plan for the finale sounds fascinating, and would definitely have intrigued me about where we were going from there.

Whatever the case, what we ended up with is a bizarre, odd season, something that was so, so good until it wasn’t, and left me wondering what kind of show I’m going to get in the next season. Will a season without conflict behind the scenes be more coherent and focused? Will the new showrunner have a vision that’s as good as DiGregorio’s was, or was the weak finale a sign of things to come? I don’t know, but I’d be lying if I was completely optimistic. And that’s a shame, because up until that finale, this was one of the most purely enjoyable series around right now, especially as a horror fan.

IMDb

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett / **** ½

51pj4xpfhvl-_sx330_bo1204203200_You could be forgiven, I suppose, for spending all of your time reading the works of the late Terry Pratchett simply exploring the wonders of the Discworld. And, to be sure, that would be a deeply satisfying way to spend your time (and I recommend it). But to do that would be to ignore some of the great books that Pratchett wrote outside of that series, like the remarkable Bromeliad Trilogy, the thought-provoking Nation, and now, Pratchett’s foray into 18th century England (and the world of Charles Dickens), Dodger. 

Despite what the title might suggest, there’s no direct connection between Dodger and the works of Charles Dickens; even if there were a book that happened to feature a character with a similar name, that’s more because Pratchett’s imaginary tosher (a slang term for those who root for treasures among the drainage and sewers of England) could be an inspiration for Dickens’ imagination. But Dodger is undeniably a purely Pratchett creation: a streetwise, playful, cynical (yet soft-hearted) rogue who makes a living for himself, feels a bit larger than life, and who can’t help but want to improve the world as he sees it, even if he’d deny that. More than that, he’s a richly and undeniably researches character, one whose dialogue is full of 18th century slang, who feels like a genuinely street-educated child rather than an author playing dumb, and whose actions feel of a piece with his complicated morality.

That goes doubly for the rich, marvelous world that Pratchett creates, thanks (according to the author himself) in no small part to the research of Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Dickens who researched conditions among the working poor in London at the time. In Pratchett’s hands, Dodger brings to life a city defined by a massive social and economic divide, to say nothing of the intrigue of the upper classes, the scars of a recent war, and more. It’s a vivid, wondrous tapestry that Pratchett has created, and he populates it with characters both non-fictional (Dickens and Mayhew both make appearances, as does Robert Peel, and other various figures) and fictional, including an infamous “demon” barber of the time that Pratchett uses as the centerpiece for one of his most effective, quietly powerful points. And not content to only use the creations of others, Pratchett does his usual magnificent character building work, with my favorite being Dodger’s Jewish protector, teacher, and friend Solomon Cohen.

The only weakness of Dodger – well, maybe it’s more of a flaw, because there’s really nothing bad about the book, just an aspect that’s not as strong as the rest – is the plot, which is serviceable, but really just functions as a way to string together the various incidents of the novel. That’s Pratchett’s style, of course – it’s what makes the Discworld books so incredible and joyous – but Dodger feels a little more focused by virtue of its single main character, and the wandering story sometimes feels a little sloppy. There’s some fascinating aspects, mind you, and the central hook – in which Dodger saves a young woman from a beating, only to discover that it’s involved him in some massive intrigue on a governmental level – is a good one. But the final showdown feels a bit silly, involving an ultra-capable government assassin character who feels out of step with the rest of the novel.

And yet, that’s a flaw of the book, but it’s a minor one, and one that certainly doesn’t take away from the joy of the book. As always, Pratchett is a master of commenting on the world around him through the medium of his writing and fiction, and Dodger is no exception, using 18th-century England as a way of commenting on how little things may have changed over the years. More than that, Dodger is another reminder of Pratchett’s wonderful, magical prose, which brings characters to life through little more than their remarkable, distinct voices. And adding that to the rich world creation he’s doing here…well, it all makes for a great read, even with that flaw. But do you really expect anything else from Pratchett?

Amazon