Ten Movies You’ve Probably Heard Of, But Most Likely Haven’t Seen and Should

I just finished listening to another sci fi/fantasy type young adult book called The Knife of Never Letting Go. It was good, I think, though in general an upsetting story it was very well done. I won’t review it here now though, because it’s the first in a trilogy and I’d rather finish all three before writing about them, as it ends on a dramatic cliff hanger and how I feel about the book will be impacted a lot by what happens next.
Instead, the Oscars are in a few weeks and so I’d like to put forth my own nominations. I am not going to do a ten best of the year list, because I think if you look up any critic’s you’ll see a lot of my movies are on their lists too, and I’ve already listened to podcast after podcast about the ten best films of the year, and if I make up a list I’ll just feel like I’m regurgitating what I’ve already heard.

Instead here are ten recent, or at least relatively recent, films that I think have been largely overlooked… both by most critics and by audiences in general. I found that they seemed to pair off neatly as I wrote them down, so in groups of two I present to you, movies I love but that other people either hate or don’t know about.

The Dystopian Romance Category:
The most recent movie on this list is “How I Live Now” The audiobook made it onto my top ten list of 2013, and this movie did not shame its source material. Directed by Kevin MacDonald who also helmed the picture “The Last King of Scotland” and starring the wonderful Saoirse Ronan this is a beautifully crafted movie with a strange but bewitching sense of pacing and world. Things start out slow and almost languorous as the film captures main character Daisy’s arrival to her cousin’s house in England. But things soon escalate to the frantic and nightmarish as war enters their lives. I was incredibly touched and affected by the book, but was still caught off guard by the raw emotional impact the movie had on me, it left me reduced to a useless floor puddle as the credits rolled. Still I cannot recommend it enough as a truly well-crafted and beautiful film with an amazing actress at its center. You can rent this on Amazon Prime Streaming for a small sum.


With Keira Knightley, Carrie Mulligan and Andrew Garfield all in starring roles I’m surprised that “Never Let Me Go” didn’t get more attention than it did. The book this movie is based on is a phenomenal piece of writing, and while I don’t think the movie quite lives up to the novel’s tight and careful plotting, the film still delivers on everything needs to. The three actors involved certainly don’t hurt it. It also has a strange, slow pace which some may find off-putting but that I found worked great with the setting and subject matter. While the plot may sound conventional, a love triangle, an English boarding school… it is set in a future that is anything but. And while they’re there to help along the main themes, the sci fi elements of the story aren’t at all what it’s about. What the movie and book both explore is very similar to what “How I Live Now” explores. Life is short and hard, and love really matters and sometimes missed opportunities are missed forever. If that sounds too bleak than maybe neither of these movies are for you, but that would be a shame, because they each explore these themes in ways that are worth seeing. This is also available for rent on Amazon.


The Sci Fi Action Category:
I’ll admit I have a soft spot for Jake Gyllenhal, but I swear, “Source Code” will win you over even if you aren’t a huge fan of his. Centered around a guy who’s sent back in time (sort of) over and over onto a train that’s about to explode, the premise may sound gimmicky but it definitely is immediately suspenseful and enaging. And anyhow, the film transcends it’s a-bit-too-precious concept and ventures into real meaty narrative territory as it proceeds. For instance, when compared to Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu”, which has a very similar plot, it holds up as not only smarter and better written but as all around more substantial. And the ending, while at first blush seemingly a bit sappy, packs a strange and wonderful punch that most Hollywood films lack. Directed by Duncan Jones of “Moon” semi-fame, “Source Code” was uneasily received by both critics and the general public, neither of whom seemed to know what to make of it. But I firmly believe that if more people saw this fast paced, fun, suspenseful movie it would find its audience in no time and I can’t wait to see Jones’ next movie, ”Warcraft”, even if it is based on, well… Warcraft. Source Code is available for rent on Amazon streaming.

I think more people have seen “I, Robot” than most of the other movies on this list, so I’ll keep my description limited: Will Smith at his best, Allan Tudyk is always amazing, James Cromwell, Robots, SOOOO much fun, Alex Proyas (who directed Dark City). Just re watch it already and admit you really like it, even if Bridget what’s her head in the lead female role is not that great. (Also while writing this I just discovered Proyas is directing a movie about Egyptian Gods coming out in 2016. Sign me up.) I, Robot is, again, available on Amazon to stream if you rent it.

The Ricky Gervais Comedy Category:
OK so I love both these movies so unconditionally that it’s extremely hard for me to recommend them without sounding like I’m being paid by the studios to do so… and the reality is each of these movies is not perfect, they do have some rough patches and are shaggy in the plotting department, but I find they both redeem themselves completely with their strength of movie character. 

“Ghost Town” has Tea Leoni, who is hilarious and wonderful, as well as Ricky Gervais who is also hilarious and wonderful, and Greg Kinnear who is… well… er. Let’s move on. This movie overcomes a saccharine plot where Gervais’ grouchy dentist character has to learn to love through the help of ghosts, to actually provide a serious, realistic depiction of a budding relationship. They’re hard. They hurt. People make mistakes and some things don’t turn out OK… but underlying the whole film is a base of human compassion that makes you believe maybe they will turn out OK, sometimes at least. Look on Amazon to rent this streaming!

“The Invention of Lying” might have its flaws but it wears it’s earnest heart on its sleeve so proudly it’s difficult to begrudge it its existence. Set in a world where no one ever lies and can only tell the truth, Gervais plays a screenwriter who suddenly develops the ability to lie. Again, the plot is gimmicky, but in my opinion (though many critics disagree with me) it overcomes it by sheer force of its charm and wit. Also, like Ghost Town, it’s a romantic comedy that succeeds outside the conventional template of a romantic comedy. People can be jerks, and relationships aren’t easy, and sometimes lying is good. When I first saw this movie it was in a theater with my mom and I sat, completely transcended to a plane of pure joy as I was watching it. When I exited the theater, I found while my mom had liked it, she had not had at all the same wonderous experience I had watching this movie. Upon reading reviews, I found many critics I love strongly disliked it. Maybe it just clicks with me on a level it doesn’t with most people, I don’t know, but I do know I love it.  Amazon has this one available for rent also. Netflix is really striking out in the streaming department in regards to these movies I’m recommending.

The Fun Legal Thriller Category:
I was expecting near nothing from each of these movies and was pleasantly surprised in both cases to find that they were smart, well written, well acted and genuinely suspenseful thrillers.
If I have a soft spot for Jake Gyllenhal I have a bigger, blinder one for Tom Cruise. Yes he might be bonkers but there’s just something so charming about his performances that I love. He does a great job in “Jack Reacher” but he’s not even my favorite actor in the movie, Wener Herzog, who I often loathe as a director but adore in his few acting appearances, has that honor. Is he the villain? You guess. But let’s just say they don’t waste his accent. Rosamund Pike is also great in it. This IS streaming on Netflix! As well as free to stream on Amazon Prime.

Matthew McConaughey may have blown up in 2013 but in 2011 he made a pretty great movie with “The Lincoln Lawyer”. Also staring are William H Macy and the divine Marissa Tomei. Super fun and satisfying movie. Both these films are great if you want to see evil brought to justice in a smarter and more down to earth way than they do it in your average super hero film. This movie is available for rent on Amazon Prime.


In the Movies You Should See if You Love Me category are:
In “Saved” Jena Malone stars in this movie about what happens when a good Christian girl gets pregnant when she’s 16. I saw this in college and it just really stuck with me in a satisfying way. I like that while it isn’t a vicious satire the fact that its claws aren’t that sharp doesn’t detract from the point it is making, but in fact helps to make it. I just think it’s a great little movie so full of good intention that it soars. One could argue it has a “Christian” message at the end that betrays its own themes but I disagree with that. I think the message in the end is Christian in the best sense of the word, saying only that people should treat each other as they would want to be treated, and it’s hard to find fault with that assertion. This movie is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

“A Very Long Engagement” is a movie that was critically acclaimed, as far as I can tell, but that not nearly enough people have seen. While “Amelie” is the more “popular” film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (I say popular in quotes because it’s not like it’s a blockbuster or anything) this is the better film. And I do love “Amelie” as well, before you get up in arms, I just think this is a superior movie. I have seen it probably half a dozen times and it moves me to tears without fail. So well-acted, so well put together, so suspenseful and heart wrenching that its nearly 3 hour run time flies by, this movie is on my list of films everyone in the world should see. It follows Matilda as she searches for her fiancé in the wake of WWI, stubbornly refusing to accept that he died in the war, the more she uncovers the better the story gets. Part mystery story, part romance, part war film this movie transcends genre and instead approaches perfection. And it is only 2 bucks to rent on Amazon. So do that now.


And on that hyperbolic statement, I’m out!

A Completely Non Audiobook, Personal Post… About Babies of All Things

I’m still rabidly listening to audiobooks, but so many of them are forgettable YA scifi books I just don’t feel the need to write about. There was one vampire one and I thought I could write about my annoyance with vampires… but in a Post Twilight world that seemed like just throwing more crap onto the fire to burn, and after awhile that makes the fire less glowy and comforting and more smelly and irritating. Besides, I do love Buffy…
Then something happened this weekend and while I’ve been trying to let it go I just can’t. It’s making me think I may just wade into something I usually avoid: controversy.
Here is how it played out, sitting outside by a bonfire with my boyfriend, his family and some friends the conversation turned to parenting. I’m not sure how this happened, as only one of the people present was a parent anyhow. It was typical “kids these days” railing, things like “…they think they can just plunk ‘em down in front of these electronics…” Or “These kids think they can get away with murder nowadays…” I’m guilty of this sort of thing on occasion, saying something like “My parents would never have let me act like that and get away with it.” but mostly, not having kids myself, I do try my best to reserve judgment. And while it does pain me to look over and see an entire family out to eat staring at their cell phones instead of each other, I look at my phone all the time as sort of a nervous tic myself so how can I judge?  And…personally I think a few hours of an ipad game (particularly in say, a waiting room or at an adult party) is not going to destroy any lives, and in fact can probably be a good thing for the little ones.
In general though, I try to let this sort of thing wash over me and then move on to something I know more about. In this case I did open my mouth, and started to make a comment that was founded on exactly no facts or knowledge. Always a good idea… What I started to say was “I think the general culture of parenting has changed to be focused much more on positive reinforcement rather than shaming and discipline, and while some kids may be bratty because of this other kids I’m sure are more self confident and happier. Maybe it will balance out in the end. Or maybe the next generation will be ultra strict as a backlash…” Ok, also, maybe what I would have said in front of that fire wouldn’t have been so coherent. One reason I try to bite my tongue is that I get really emotional in these moments and my thoughts get jumbled and my words harsh or irrational. This, as I said, is also something I happen to know NOTHING about. However, I wasn’t allowed to finish  my train of thought, instead I got to “I think the general culture of parenting…” before being cut rather viciously off by the only parent present.
“PARENTING.” she said bitterly. “What do you mean? No one parents anymore. They just leave their kids with the nanny and let them do it. They’re all out working.”
What I did then, for a multitude of reasons, was hold my tongue, and say “I don’t think that’s true or fair.” with what restraint I could. Then I let it go.
But it keeps coming back to me now, even days later, and it makes me mad.
Let’s rewind now, to a tiny, sweaty college dorm room at one of the self-proclaimed most liberal liberal arts schools in the country. You can imagine the feelings here are the exact opposite of the mother who sat by the fire just this past weekend, a complete 180. Here there is only sneering and lip curling reserved for a woman who would harness herself so completely to the “shackles” of motherhood that she would give up her career for it. How could anyone in this enlightened day and age even consider such a thing? In this scenario I’m also suddenly forced into an extreme viewpoint. Now… I know for a fact I was never the eloquent one in these scenes, in fact I would say I was usually drunken and incoherent, but since I’m writing this I’m going to re-write history a bit and time travel a bit and put in my own mouth words I would have said if I was less emotional and less full of PBR.
And that is the point I’m trying to get to. Something that is not arguable is that many woman in the past fought and even died for each other’s, and our own, freedoms and rights. This freedom should include the right to be able to choose what’s best for you and for your family as a whole, and in some cases that may be deciding that you WANT to stay home with your kids, in other cases it won’t be, but isn’t that the entire point? That we have both “freedom” and “rights”? What good is decades of feminism and screaming about equal rights if we are unable to decide we want to stay home and raise our kids ourselves, without being shamed or looked down on by women who have decided their career is important too, and that they will continue to pursue and work on that. And vice versa. Women who do important things with their lives and dedicate themselves to their jobs shouldn’t be looked down on either for not staying home with the kids. I’m sure some of this pain and shaming comes from men, but most of what I have seen of it is coming from other women. Then they turn around and shame other women and it goes on and on and on.
Part of why I didn’t open my mouth that night is I didn’t want to get in a fight about this. Around the fire, I know without a doubt that I would have been told that staying home with the kids is RIGHT and continuing with your career is WRONG. In dorm rooms I was told the same thing, but the other way around.
Now let’s rewind again, to a much more recent past. My male coworker’s wife recently had a baby. He took a week’s vacation and while he was gone things in my work group got hectic. As a result, the day he got back into the office I spent most of the time at his desk, going over things we were behind on. This took much, much, longer than usual because about every half hour some woman would come up and start telling him exactly what his wife should or shouldn’t be doing with the baby. One woman insisted that women who didn’t breast feed should be thrown in jail for child abuse. Another woman basically said that women who DID breast feed should have the same done to them. Both women argued that their preferred method was “the only way to go” and that the other method was tantamount to letting the infant starve to death. One woman advised mixing formula into the breast milk for more “nutrients” and “health” (clear and unrefutable scientific advice I’m sure). And this is just on the issue of feeding. On and on they went on crying, on burping, on napping. By the end of the day I was exhausted and pissed off, and I didn’t even have an infant at home. Why couldn’t these people just come up to the desk and say “Congratulations, your new little one is cute”? Why in the world did they each feel the need to dogmatically argue some child rearing point instead of just giving their simple well wishes? For surely these women meant well? Or did they? And maybe that’s the point… They saw in the new father a willing and impressionable audience and they climbed right up on their favorite soap box in order to be the first in his head with their opinion. None of them actually seemed to have the slightest intention of actually helping this new mother and daughter.
Now, I’m not a mother so I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I cannot understand or comprehend the urge to scream at someone about breast milk for hours because I am lacking some kind of vital maternal instinct…

Ah you see what I did there?
In the end it all comes down to fear. And shame. When I hear the mother from my first story around the fire go on about how EVERY woman feels WONDERFUL at six months pregnant, and how I couldn’t possibly understand that until I experience this WONDERFUL feeling, the emotions I feel are fear and shame.  The same I felt sitting at my coworkers desk listening to arguments about breast milk. I have never been particularly thrilled or excited by the idea of child birth or by babies in general. I don’t like holding them, I don’t like thinking about a little person growing inside of me, and when my mother tried to watch the British show “Call the Midwife” with me the other day I was close to running screaming out of the room. The fact is I’ve always thought of the whole baby thing as big and terrifying and icky and something I’m not positive I want to do. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to, or am not curious about it, but it’s not exactly all rose colored glasses for me. For most of my life this has been fine. “Nowadays” as I’ve been saying, there are a lot of girls who share my feeling and are open about it, but recently, as I get older, a lot of these girls suddenly have babies and or actively want them and I’m feeling more and more alone.
By the same token, this mother who insists pregnancy is the most wonderful feeling on the planet, has never been able to have a career and didn’t have the choice and opportunity I was lucky enough to have to go to school and pursue a study that I love. I know that now, when she’s faced with trying to provide her own daughter with that same choice I had, she too feels fear and shame at “only” having stayed home to raise the kids.

I want to tell her I admire her for the three wonderful kids she’s raised, all of whom I happen to care deeply about and who I think are great. I want to tell her I’m impressed with how easily she swoops up infants and knows what to do with them, while I hold them as grimly as though they might turn into goo at any moment.
Yet I don’t say these things. Sadly, it feels like the gulf between us is just too vast to cross. Though I might be still relative young, the life choices I made have already been too dramatically different from hers. And if I do have children (IF!) I will almost certainly want to continue working outside of the home. It’s something I’m lucky enough to have the freedom to do, and it’s something I want to do. I dread the day I would ever have to tell her this, I feel certain her reaction would be horror, and mine would be total shame and misery. And I won’t pretend that my own decision, the more important and liberating one of whether or not I even want children at all, isn’t colored not just by this woman’s reaction but by the knowledge that I will meet for the rest of my life woman of like mind and will essentially be tortured by them, over and over again.
In the end, I suppose all I’m saying is moms, stop and think before you react. A lot of people aren’t lucky enough to have any choice, they HAVE to either work or stay home depending on their financial situations. Whether or not you are lucky or affluent enough to be able to decide if you want to be at home or at work with your kids, why be so shameful and horrible to women who may be making a different decision, or may be being forced to do something different due to their circumstances? Who are, in short, DIFFERENT FROM YOU.  Why as women do we continue to do this to each other? No one in their right mind would advocate that every sick person receive the same treatment, regardless of their condition, and so why advocate that every mother and child be the same, regardless of who they are?
“You’re of childbearing age.” My doctor told me at my last visit, and I physically flinched away from her at the reminder. I don’t know what I will decide or not decide in the future, but right now I just know I want to avoid the whole issue. It’s a bloody mothering battlefield out there, and to me it doesn’t look like anyone is winning anytime soon.

Top Ten 2013 Audiobooks

Hello friends, it’s been awhile. I’d give you excuses about how I’ve been busy or haven’t been listening to anything that interesting but none of them are really valid. In the end I just wasn’t sure anyone was reading this, and just couldn’t convince myself that it was worthwhile to continue writing. Also, I found myself running out of things to say about young adult scifi or dystopian books. Perhaps I should broaden my audiobook selection, but what fun would that be.

That being said I am a sucker for end of the year lists, and I decided to revive this blog in order to share with you my top ten audiobooks I listened to this year…

10. Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: This book about a strange monster who violently hunts and kills people in the Museum of Natural History is mostly just pure fun. The writing is serviceable, and the plot, though a bit ridiculous is engaging and extremely entertaining. What really makes the book is the character of Special Agent Pendergast, an incredibly clever Sherlock-Holmes-ian FBI agent whose delightful eccentricities make the story hum, as well as make up for some of the more ridiculous plot points. There’s genuine horror involved too, I found myself shuddering and nearly fast forwarding the book at several different parts. Relic is the first in a series of Pendergast books, and I listened to about 4 of them before I grew bored. They’re all pretty fun but I would argue this first book is the best of the series, though the second one is worth reading as well.


9. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon takes place in London 2059 in a world full of clairvoyants (people with various psychic powers) who are forced to conceal their “talents” rather than be persecuted for them by an evil government. Does that sound like a bit much to take in? Well that’s just the very beginning of this ambitious but ultimately flawed first book by Shannon. By the time the book really gets cooking and our heroine, Paige, is spirited away to a secret Oxford prison camp run by aliens as a reader you just have to be willing to go with it, or else you’ll miss the pleasures it does have to offer. The writing is very good, the different powers the clairvoyants possess are a lot of fun to read about, and though at times character motivations and plot points become muddled (especially towards the end) overall its unique premise and solid world building make up for its occasional lapses into confusion.


8. Cinder/Scarlet by Marissa Meyer: At first I was skeptical of a futuristic re-telling of the Cinderella story set in a plague ridden China where Cinderella is a cyborg. However this series swiftly won me over with its whole hearted dedication to its premise and its space opera vibe. (The real enemies are on the moon! And they have special powers!) The sequel, Scarlet, is equally intriguing, and though both books drag a bit at times things always pick up just before the narrative strays into troubled territory. These are well worth reading just to experience Meyer’s grim future fairy tale vision.


7. 14 by Peter Clines: Fans of Lost and Lovecraft take heed, this is the book for you. Set in a strange apartment building in LA 14 is ultimately a story of how a group of strangers become a family of sorts while saving the world from some very odd threats. This book is full of fun puzzles and mysteries but doesn’t sacrifice character or plot for the sake of them. And even if at the end it slides into goofiness, by then you’re fully on board.


6. Pure/Fuse by Julianna Baggot: In this series, (the third book is still forthcoming) Baggot pushes the young adult dystopia genre to its most gruesome limits. Set in a nuclear apocalyptic world, almost everyone is “fused” to whatever objects they were in contact with at the time the bombs went off (for example, our heroine has a doll’s head instead of hand). The science might be more than questionable but the premise makes for some haunting and wonderful images, one of the main characters has live birds fused into his back, and when he becomes agitated their wings rustle beneath his shirt. Also in the mix is a dome full of “pure” un-fused people living out a rather dismal dystopian existence. While occasionally the plot goes a little haywire the strong characters, poetic writing and intricate world building save it every time.


5. The Last Girlfriend On Earth by Simon Rich. This collection of quirky and well-meaning short stories won me over immediately. While not all stories in this collection are created equal, there are some that shine brilliantly while there are others that stray too far into “cute” territory, the deep and nuanced portrayals of human relationships which link the stories together make this an ultimately wonderful collection. One of my favorites was a story told from the point of view of a guy whose ex girlfriend is dating Hitler now, and all his friends love him. Sounds weird I know, but it works great in context.


4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I won’t say much about this classic novel, since so much has already been said, but I will say that in encountering it for the first time it completely blew me away. For those that dismiss it as feminist babble I scoff at you. For evidence it’s more than that just look at the strong and achingly identifiable characters, both female and male, the powerful imagery, the lyrical prose, and the moving depictions of human beings so thoroughly oppressed. It’s clear this book stands apart from the feminist movement as a powerful piece of art in its own right. I insist Atwood deserves all the hype she gets.


3. How I live Now by Meg Rosoff is possibly the most powerful Young Adult book I have ever read. Set in a near future our heroine, Daisy, has been sent to the UK countryside to live with her cousins. In the outside world war seems to be brewing, but the book doesn’t focus on that, at least at first. The story follows Daisy as she forms close relationships with her cousins in the idyllic British countryside, including one particularly close one with her cousin Edmund. At first the war is just on the periphery of their lives, and they continue living almost as usual, but eventually and suddenly the effects of the war reach them and things change dramatically. The book follows Daisy as she grows and falls in love, but it is also a poignant, and often violent, meditation on the far reaching effects of war and how it is impossible to escape them. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and the recent movie directed by Kevin MacDonald is equally wonderful. See it if you can, it’s available for rent on demand and on Amazon.


2. The Ocean at The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: I wrote a full review of this so I won’t linger too long, but if you want a beautiful story about growing older and the unexpected turns life takes, but full of fantasy and mystery, this is your place to look. And I know, I know  “a story about growing older” sounds cheesy and cliché, but Gaiman somehow manages to make it feel fresh and unique, but still infinitely relatable. I love Neil Gaiman and I think this book  is his most cohesive, most powerful work so far.


1. The Flophouse. OK this isn’t an audiobook, it’s a podcast, but for this year it has to be in my number one spot. I began to listen to the show hesitantly, unsure whether I liked it or not. Now I’ve listened to every single episode (there are hundreds) at least twice and I’m still not tired of it. It’s a bad movie podcast hosted by two writers from the Daily Show and their hilarious pal, and it’s mostly just them going off on insane tangents. If you want to learn a lot about the movies they review, I would say read the Wikipedia page first, because the podcast is mostly crazy nonsense and esoteric references all mashed into a joyously funny hour. The guys don’t exactly explain or review the movies in a linear fashion, but I love it all the more for that. There are tons of in jokes and strange references that layer onto each other… the more you listen the funnier the shows are, in a way that’s actually similar to Arrested Development, but in podcast form. I cannot explain the happiness this show gives me, or how excited I am when a new episode comes out. I recommend in particular the Bullet to the Head and Food Fight episodes to start out with. Though almost all the episodes are sheer joy. One caveat, it may not be for you. I love how fast paced this podcast is and I love the obscure references the hosts daisy chain throughout episodes. My boyfriend however, can’t stand it, complaining that it’s just people yelling at him about things he doesn’t understand. Oh well. To each their own. I say Flophouse forever!


And on that note, I wish everyone a great Holiday. I’m hoping mine will be good, though we’ll see as always. Should I make a New Year resolution to keep up this blog again? Comment and let me know if you think I should.

Bad Movie Night: Olympus Has Fallen (warning… spoilers)

I’ve been listening to a lot of bad movie podcasts lately and thought I would do a live blogging of a bad movie as an experiment to see how it would go… so let’s see…


Initial thoughts:

Aaron Eckhart looks super old. Gerard Butler continues to defy the aging process.

The setup: The president and his adorable, charming family are off to a White House Christmas party. Gerard Butler is head of the secret service presidential detail and is practically one of the family! Everyone is clearly getting along far too well.  Doom is impending. Butler tells a secret service agent who is about to retire that he has the honor of driving the president and his wife, but he declines… hmmm does he look suspicious maybe? Their ADORABLE (did I say adorable already? If so that’s OK because the movie goes extra far to emphasize how adorable he is) son loves Butler. The president and his CHARMING BEAUTIFUL wife exchange presents. Eckhart’s wife gives him his grandfather’s watch, all fixed up, which I’m sure we’ll see again at least 30 more times over the course of the film.

Sure enough there’s some sort of snow-related car incident which culminates in the car falling off a bridge and the wife and two agents dying. Eckhart has a dramatic NOOOO screaming fist shaking moment which does not bode well for his acting competency in the rest of the film. 


Smash cut to DC, 18 months later, it’s now July 5th. Butler looks depressed.You can tell he’s depressed because he’s lying in bed while the camera spins around him and his wife is mad at him but not really. We learn Butler now has a desk job and wants back into the president’s security detail, but the president hates his guts and blames him for his wife’s death. The secret service director (we know who she is by a giant bizarre text name tag that floats over the screen as she’s introduced) thinks he “did all the right things” and he just needs to “learn how to get back into the real world”.

Meanwhile Morgan Freeman, who is speaker of he house, wants us to take a firmer hand with the North Koreans. Text name tags continue to pop up bewilderingly on the screen even as people address each other by their names and titles, rendering them completely redundant. The president brushes off Freeman who seems disgruntled. 

This established, a Korean (South? North? The movies does a poor job of establishing this) entourage enters the White House to talk to the president. The secret service agent who retired is now working for the Koreans. He definitely is up to no good guys.

An unidentified plane, flown by Koreans, magically appears onscreen and begins to approach the White House. They shoot down American fighter planes astonishingly easily with some nifty pop out side guns. There are explosions and blood and the plane, mysteriously unopposed, shoots up DC. When we do eventually fire anti aircraft guns the pilot hits a button and what look like giant sparklers emerge from the plane. The sparklers then neutralize the anti air craft missiles. The American Flag and about a hundred secret service agents are shot to hell.

Butler senses something is wrong with his secret agent sense and by seeing large plumes of smoke out his office window. He decides the best thing to do is to run out on the streets and scream at civilians frantically while waving his arms over his head, thus sewing even more confusion and chaos. The evil plane is eventually shot down but not before dramatically taking out the Washington Monument. The President is in some sort of bunker but his son is missing. 

More explosions. These inexplicable. Butler, outside the white house. Is the ONLY ONE who sees some Korean um… suicide bombers? OK then. A gang of Koreans materializes complete with masks and backward baseball hats (surely the most threatening of head gear) who then astoundingly easily invade the White House with hand guns and garbage trucks. 

So far the most effective defense of the White House seems to be a loose guard dog who actually manages to take out one of the North Koreans. The poor thing is shot though, cementing my dislike of this film. The North Koreans who were meeting with the president turn on him (surprise surprise). Looks like he should have listened to Morgan Freeman. 

The secret service director gets the non enviable line “We may have a hostage situation on our hands” which I have to give it to her– she delivers with panache.

These scenes are unashamedly full of carnage, secret service agents, dogs, and police are mercilessly gunned down. Somehow Butler survives but has to climb over a mountain of his dead secret service agent buddies to get in. It’s frankly disgustingly blatant in it’s manipulation.

The stage is set. Now the audience, after seeing a symbol of their nation and men who serve it brutally gunned down, are supposed to want revenge at all cost. I instead feel sort of mildly ill and irritated. I’m particularly pissed off about the murdered dog and the use of garbage trucks, which is too ridiculous for words. The Koreans are wasting a lot of bullets just shooting dead bodies. 

They then shoot a bunch of people in the head with the camera in tight, just in case we don’t get how evil these people are. There’s a lot of screaming and shouting. Just when you think it can’t get more despicable there’s a long slow shot of the American Flag floating off the top of the white house, riddled with bullet holes, the setting sun behind it. 

Butler begins stalking around the White House basement angrily and somehow a drone gets deployed somewhere. I think possibly one of the Koreans hacked into the American defense system inexplicably. At this point I’m vaguely sick to my stomach and irritated and fast becoming uninterested. 

Down in the bunker where the hostages are being held. The traitor secret service agent who is now working for the Koreans gives an incredibly angry shouty speech about how corrupt America is complete with the phrase “fucking Wall Street” until Eckhart head butts him. That’s sort of satisfying. Morgan Freeman gets sworn in as president. Butler lurks some more. Then finally after all the blood and nonsense we get our real plot established. The North Koreans want us to remove our fleet that’s stationed near Japan (without it, hisses one man, South Korea will fall… which in the real world is patently false but whatever) if we don’t do this, they’ll kill all the hostages.

It’s OK though because now Freeman is in charge. Even in this manipulative blob of a film the man injects class into everything he says. I wish I could get anti anxiety meds just full of his voice. 

In the bunker everyone is angry and very throat slitty. Evil ex secret service agent angrily smokes a cigarette. There’s a convoluted plot point about nuclear missile abort codes and Butler having to find the president’s son. Evil North Korean Mastermind spots Butler on security cam footage they’re inexplicably watching in the bunker. Evil Secret Service Agent as I have now re-named him assures Evil North Korean Mastermind that Butler is nothing to worry about. Oh we’ll see about that won’t we!

I zone out for awhile staring at facebook. There are lots of gunshots and people stomping about. When I come back in Butler has found the son and is shoving him in some sort of grated hole for some reason. Then after smooshing a puny Korean to death with his bicep he manages to get the kid out. 

Freeman is a great president. Butler takes two Koreans hostage and in a horrible American accent asks them if they “speak English… huh? do they teach you that where you come from?” My skin crawls.  He then proceeds to torture information out of them while looking grimly constipated. 

Then the audience gets treated to the Koreans beating up a defenseless older woman (the wonderful Melissa Leo no less) in a brutally bloody fashion while Eckhart looks on with piercing blue eyes in one of the most racist scenes I’ve seen in a long time. 

Then, I suppose as a seriously intended treat for the audience Evil Secret Service Agent tries to trick Butler but Butler sees through it and stabs him to death. Evil Agent dies but not before admitting that he “lost his way” by trusting those evil Koreans and telling them he killed Butler to give Butler an edge.

Then a lot of junk happens. Freeman tries to send helicopters into the White House but instead they crash into it in some kind of boring way with lots of explosions. Things are going poorly. Evil Mastermind is very evil and Butler was stabbed by shrapnel somehow in the helicopter debacle. 

Melissa Leo gets rescued from the White House but Freeman decides to cede to Evil Mastermind’s wishes and withdraw all American troops from Korea for really no reason at this point except to possibly save the president’s life? It’s unclear and the movie isn’t really interested in real human and certainly not real political motivation.

A decoy plane crash leaves everyone thinking Evil Mastermind and the president are all dead, but Butler doesn’t buy it. Sure enough they’re still in the bunker. Somehow, I’m only half paying attention at this point, Evil Mastermind figures out the president’s convoluted plot point code and he sets all the US nuclear missiles to detonate in their silos. This leads to an amazing scene of Morgan Freeman sadly watching a computer generated map of the USA slowly turning completely red while he says “he’s unleashed the gates of hell” and also a really not amazing scene of a sweaty, bloody Gerard Butler beating up the Evil Mastermind in an extremely anti climatic way while Aaron Eckhart hisses angrily and gets shot in the stomach. 

The climax of the movie is then Butler literally typing a serious of letters into a computer while someone reads them to him in a monotone voice. Literally the fate of the country hangs on Butler apparently not knowing what a backslash is.

Once that’s all tidily taken care of and nuclear holocaust averted Butler and Eckhart limp bloody but victorious out of the White House, good buddies once again. The flag is raised over the White House again. Eckhart babbles about the nation rising once again.  ‘Murica. 

General Thoughts: This movie was manipulative, overtly racist, unenjoyable garbage. It had no sense of humor or fun about it and its heart was entirely in the wrong place. It is not hard to find its polar opposite in “White House Down” a film with a similar plot but entirely different mood and intentions which I found purely enjoyable.

Thoughts on Acting: Freeman is great as always. Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service does what she can with bad lines, as does Melissa Leo in a horrible role as a woman punching bag. Butler is a sweaty, uninteresting mess, and Eckhart is frankly wooden and just plain horrible. Evil Mastermind does a decent job and Evil Agent (Dylan McDermott) is fun though not exactly subtle.  

Overall: Do not see this movie. Watch White House Down as it is infinitely more engaging, fun, and not racist. 

Top 5 Things to Avoid in YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Hello from the other side of moving! Moving is always hard, no one really likes it, but it’s especially difficult trying to cram an apartment’s worth of stuff into one room and worrying day in and day out that your dog is going to pee on your new tenant’s very nice very large fish tank. I’ve only been in the “new” place 3 days so I’m still feeling as though my life is up in the air, bits and pieces of it flying about erratically. I’ve never understood why I get so distressed about moving, as I love traveling. I have no problem living for weeks or even months out of a suitcase away from my things bouncing from place to place, and yet moving my actual living situation is traumatic and sets off my anxiety and depression like almost nothing else.

That’s why I haven’t posted in awhile in any case, and moving on… to try to regain some normalcy, I’m going to post about audiobooks. I just finished the Mortal Instruments books 1-4… and they honestly just aren’t even worth writing about. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them or that they weren’t a very nice distraction, but there’s just nothing interesting or unique about them to warrant a post.

Instead what I found myself doing was noting what WASN’T unique and interesting about them, what, in fact, I’ve encountered over and over again while listening to YA books and what drives me crazy, and before I knew it I had a list. Now I’m not saying these sci fi fantasy kids’ books should be gone through with a fine tooth literary comb. Not many of them would stand up to that, but there are a few things that are just so clunkingly obvious and avoidable and that are used over and over again that I can’t help but make note of them.
Now I’ve never written a novel myself, so it seems presumptuous to say this is what not to do. Instead I’ll say, were I going to attempt to write a YA fantasy or sci fi book, (and who knows, I might) these are the top 5 things I would try my hardest to avoid.

A note, many of my favorite books in fact do these things. The main thing is they do them either rarely (only once and not every other page) or they do them in a unique and interesting way. So these things aren’t immediate grounds for dismissing a book out of hand, it all depends on how they’re executed.

5. Do not deliver vital expository information by having your character conveniently overhear it by standing behind a door or down a hall or huddled in bushes or whatever. It’s a really boring and lazy way to drive the plot forward or to deliver information to the reader. It always makes me think the author suddenly went, oh crap this character needs to know this now but I don’t know how to get the information to them. I’ll just have them stand behind this door and listen to these two people have a conversation randomly about exactly what I need the character and reader to know. Ugh. Books Most Guilty: Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures series. Books that pull this off successfully: Game of Thrones.

4. Don’t transition between scenes with the character getting knocked out and “slipping into darkness” and then conveniently waking up where they need to be. In some of these books I’m pretty sure the characters must be about to die from brain damage from the constant concussions they receive. Seriously, I can see doing this once or even twice but at the end of every chapter? Come up with some other way to get your character to where they need to be. They have legs, maybe they could walk there. Books Most Guilty: Mortal Instruments, Sookie Stackhouse books. Books that pull this off successfully: I can’t even think of any right now.

3. You only get one Deus ex machina. It helps to avoid having really old really powerful characters that know all the answers and are constantly stepping in to magically (literally) solve problems that seemed completely impossible just a moment ago. But if you’re going to have a powerful intervening force save the day at the end of the book, just have it happen once. Don’t have it happen in every book you write, and don’t have it happen three times at the end of the same book, for God’s sake (literally). Related to this, incidents such as “The blade was raised. He squeezed his eyes tight and waited for the final blow. Instead there was a clash of metal and a blur of movement as _Fill In The Blank_ jumped into battle at the last moment.” should be limited. Books Most Guilty: Mortal instruments, The Alchemyst series. Books that pull this off successfully: The Small Change Series by Jo Walton. The Bartimaeus series (the Deus ex machina at the end of this one comes with a stunning sacrifice that makes it work beautifully).

2. Don’t constantly kill off characters and then bring them back to life. Seriously. Just. Don’t. Do. It. The first time I’m surprised he’s still alive! But by the time the fifth character you’ve killed off pops up raised from the dead or a vampire or having faked their own death or even simply inexplicably alive I’m thinking you should write for Days of Our Lives. Books Most Guilty: Almost all of them—Even Harry Potter. Books that pull this off successfully: Game of Thrones, and that’s because Martin really does kill so many people that if one of them turns up alive after all it’s such a relief you forgive him for it.

1. NO LOVE TRIANGLES. I know, I know, these books are written for 13 year old girls, and 13 year old girls love that sort of thing, but honestly just stop. Love triangles are predictable and a waste of space on the page. They’re boring. Nothing interesting can happen in a love triangle, even if one corner of it turns into a vampire or it turns out that the other corner was really a prince in disguise all along, seriously, NOTHING can make the stupid sappy love triangle unique or interesting. A reader can almost always immediately pick who the girl or guy is going to choose in the end, and pages upon pages of them being “torn” or their horrible decision is irritating and takes the focus off whatever other plot you have going… which presumably is how you’re going to introduce anything unique or interesting into the story, since it will not happen with a love triangle. By the same token, if lovers are star crossed, but they’ve overcome that and are now together, manufacturing weird things to keep them apart is unforgivable. In most cases they’ve literally gone through hell or some demon scape or fought an unbeatable curse or monster in order to be together, and then you have the girl worrying the boy doesn’t like her because he didn’t call? Seriously? Stop it. Find a different way to make your story interesting than huge bucketfulls of adolescent romance. Limit yourself to some dollops to keep the 13 year old girl market interested, and if that means less badly written making-out-in-the-rain scenes then everyone wins. Books Most Guilty: Mortal Instruments, Presumably Twilight, The Iron Fey Series, Uglies Series… and even my beloved Hunger Games. Books that pull this off successfully: The Matched series, The Pure series.

Poor Mortal Instruments. Really they’re fun books, they’re just guilty of all of these sloppy plot devices and they’re fresh in my mind.

Any books you can think of that are also guilty? I know there must be more but my brain is mush. Tomorrow is Wednesday, which doesn’t sound like much to go on, but Tuesday is the worst and it’s always good to put behind you.

As I said earlier, these things occur in a lot of really fantastic books and movies, it’s just all about execution and redundancy.



I think I’ve admitted this before, but in case you don’t know, I was a huge Lost fan. I was totally suckered in by the mystery, the characters and the uniqueness of the show. Say what you will about it, but the early seasons at least had a sort of breathless excitement that I found myself carried away by. Later though, sigh, it turned into a slog. But I stuck with it! Through the horrible plot holes, lack of explanation, killing off of my favorite characters, and just downright lame plot points I stuck with the show, all because I was still gunning for some kind of payoff to those first few breathless seasons.

Whether or not Lost paid off as a whole is debatable. ( And oh how it has been debated.) I’ll just say that I remain unsatisfied, yet not enraged by the show. I feel mainly disappointed, and that’s mostly because that early promise and taste of mystery that was so exciting when I first encountered Lost just sort of… fizzled. It soon became clear the writers just didn’t know where they were going with… well anything.

14 by Peter Clines was then an especially satisfying listen for me. It has that same sort of mystery/puzzle premise Lost has but it knows where it’s going with it. Also like Lost it’s not ONLY about the puzzle. Its characters have heart and are people you can follow and care about, something that I think is vital if your entire plot is based on solving a puzzle. Otherwise all you’re left with is cold, clicking parts and no warmth.

There is no island in 14, instead the puzzle and mystery centers around an apartment building in LA. Our “hero” Nate, hears about the building through an acquaintance and needing a place to live on the cheap seizes the opportunity. But not all is as it appears… there are some weird things going on in the building (the light in his kitchen is a black light no matter what bulb he puts in, there are bright green cockroaches with extra limbs skittering about, and not to mention all those weird locked rooms he’s not allowed into) and Nate becomes at first mildly curious, but then evolves into a determined investigator as he uncovers more and more weirdness about the place he now calls home. He meets other tenants, who are for the most part likable, if perhaps admittedly a bit zany and canned, and teams up with them to finally uncover the mystery of the building.

The unavoidable problem with a premise like this, and like the one in Lost, is that eventually you have to solve the mystery and unmask the bad guy, and whether it was a real ghost or just the creepy old caretaker all along, as a writer, there are issues to deal with either way.

I’m not saying 14 is flawless in how it solves its mysteries… but it is creative and it is a ton of fun, and for God’s sake it seems like Clines actually story boarded the thing out before he started writing, unlike the crazy people who created Lost.

What really pays off in this book are the character arcs. Nate is at first an aimless temp who hates his job and is just trying to get by. At the risk of sounding too cheesy, I really connected with him and thought it was incredibly fun and satisfying to see the mystery around his apartment and the connections he makes with the other tenants instill him with a sense of purpose and change his life for the better.

The audiobook is flawlessly read and I could see it being a great listen on say, a family road trip. (Though with like teenagers, I wouldn’t try to get a 5 year old to listen to this or anything.)

I recommend the book, I had a ton of fun with it. That being said I’ll issue a warning… it is in the end a sort of goofy adventure book. If you go into it too seriously or expecting something life changing you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride it’ll be a good one.

Titles I Love in Literature

My aunt made a comment on my last post about great books with great titles. At first it was a little intimidating, as any “greatest books of all time” list would be. I decided to narrow it down to take some of the pressure off to books I love, with titles I love. Making it a more personal exercise helped a ton, though it gave me a sudden enthusiasm that resulted in a list of more works than seemed manageable or even interesting to post. In the end, I did two lists—one of longer works and another of short works.

And establishing that simple premise let’s jump into my top five full length books:

5. Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (the collection not the eponymous short story, though it’s one of my favorite in the book). Certainly his most well known book of short stories, and arguably his best, this book made a huge impression on me and my writing specificially. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Carver (and you should be) his stories are the epitome of simplicity, but always manage to strike the reader neatly in the emotional gut, often knocking the wind out of them. It’s the neat, concise way he manages it that inspires awe. In one of his most gut wrenching stories “Popular Mechanics” , which is only about two pages long, it ends with the innocuous sentence “In this manner, the issue was decided.” Go read this story, it takes only a few moments, and this innocent sentence will suddenly become something horrifying in a very short but effective span of time. It’s a good example of Carver’s genius. The title of the collection is not only striking, but does what I was really looking for in this list, it resonates throughout the entire work and ties the stories together in a really complex thematic fashion. Note: It’s hard nowadays to bring up Carver without bringing up his long time editor, Gordon Lish, who is now sometimes credited for being responsible for Carver’s minimalistic style through his rather brutal hand at editing. The question of whether Carver would be Carver if not for Lish is a literary debate which can’t be won, and which I wouldn’t begin to presume to come down on either side of… I just wanted to mention it. It’s an interesting phenomenon and worth investigating if you admire Carver as much as I do.

4. I couldn’t make this list without having Vonnegut on it, and while I love all of his books along with their titles there’s one in particular I find truly beautiful and that is The Sirens of Titan. It also happens to be my favorite book of his, though it is also perhaps his sappiest. It contains a message of love and acceptance that when removed from the novel becomes almost saccharine, but in the context of his rapid fire, often cynical prose instead comes out simply hopeful and lovely. It’s not his best work I don’t think, but like I said it’s my favorite of his and a book really dear to my heart. Again, the title resonates throughout the whole work, and particularly at the end.

3. A Widow for One Year by John Irving is my third pick. He might have other novels with more fun titles but this book, I think, is one of his best, and it’s one where the title makes an interesting statement about the world in which the novel takes place. I won’t give anything away, but the title doesn’t even click until the very end of the book. It’s a neat effect as having it in the back of your mind the whole time makes for a really gratifying experience when you do reach the final pages and glean the meaning behind it. The novel takes place in two parts, the first features a troubled family whose two teenaged sons were killed years earlier in a car accident and who now are struggling to raise a small daughter. This section is told from the perspective of a high school kid, Eddie, who comes to spend the summer with the family, ostensibly to shadow the father, who is a famous writer, but whose experience ends up being a lot different than expected as he becomes more and more involved with this extremely dysfunctional family. The second part follows the now grown up daughter of the family, Ruth, who has become a famous novelist in her own right. This second half involves murder investigations, whores in Amsterdam, and how our childhoods inform who we are as we go on with our lives. It’s a John Irving book and so it’s long and convoluted and at times endlessly sad and at times endlessly funny. It has its flaws and rough patches but I find it ultimately wonderful. There are images from it that have particularly stuck with me on an almost daily basis– they are that striking and memorable. Note: I also highly recommend the movie based only on the first half of this book (an excellent decision not to try to make the whole thing) which is called “The Door in the Floor”. It does a wonderful job capturing some of those images I mentioned and also stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger who are both great in it.

2. The next pick is Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” which may just be my favorite title of anything ever. Stoppard plucks a throwaway line and throwaway characters from one of the greatest plays ever written and creates an existential masterpiece that’s one of my favorite well springs for quotable lines. Possibly my favorite from the play, which has turned into practically a mantra for me over the years: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

1. My favorite novel with in my opinion the best title is one that actually, quite fittingly, my aunt who inspired this post gave me as a present for Christmas many years ago. It is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and it’s the book I’ve read probably more than any other ever. This book is a constant source of comfort for me and has very special, personal meaning for me, but it’s difficult to explain why it is so special, even to myself. The book is told in journal form by Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of a difficult- Joyce-ish writer who is critically acclaimed but who has not written in years and years. She lives in an old run down castle estate in rural England with her older sister, younger brother, afore mentioned father, eccentric step mother, and Stephen, the son of a former maid who does jobs around the castle in exchange for his room and board. They are all slowly eking out a living when their world is shaken by the arrival of two young Americans into the “great house” of the estate. It’s a coming of age story of sorts, which I usually detest, but it’s not your average one. It has more to do with striving to be a person you want to be and how difficult that can be even in simple circumstances, than with “coming of age” in the conventional “Bildungs Roman” sense. It also has a whole lot to do with how emotions affect us as humans, some more than others, and that’s a theme which I am perpetually interested in. It’s a quick and fun read, the title has a double meaning which isn’t that deep or complex but which still resonates in a pleasing way throughout the book. Also it just sounds really cool. It has one of my favorite opening lines of all time as well: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”

Now, for the sake of brevity I’m going to list rapid fire my favorite titled shorter works (A form meets function sort of list. Har Har):

“A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” by J.D. Salinger (short story)

“Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford (poem)

“A Clean Well Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway (short story)

“Domination of Black” by Wallace Stevens (poem)

“The Dead” by James Joyce (short story)

READ THEM ALL! There is no excuse! They are all short, readily available, and wonderful.

Honorable Mentions in no particular order:

Novels: Walk Two Moons, Breakfast of Champions, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Fahrenheit 451, The Moon At Night, A Wrinkle in Time, Startide Rising, The Trial, The Tin Drum

Poems: Tulips, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, Skunk Hour, One Art, The Voice, Lost in Translation

Short Stories: A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Depressed Person, The Story of an Hour, The Metamorphosis