Good vs. Memorable

Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?

There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.

Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.

Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.

At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.

So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?

What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Movies: Hearts Beat Loud

“Poignant” is the word that came to mind while watching this little indie film. I don’t know if that fits, exactly, but it’s what I actively thought at the time.

This movie stars Nick Offerman as Frank, single father to Sam, who is taking classes over the summer before leaving NY to attend UCLA. Frank has run a record store called Red Hook Records for 17 years, but now too broke to pay the rent, he has to close the place and find another job. He also has a mother (Blythe Danner) who “gets confused sometimes” and yet refuses to give up her rent-controlled apartment to live with Frank.

There are a couple of B storylines: Nick’s landlord Leslie is giving him mixed signals, and Sam falls in love with a girl named Rose. But the chief conflict is that Frank and Sam “jam” together, and after recording a song one night, Frank uploads it to Spotify and it gets put on a “new indies” playlist. It gets enough attention that there is interest in repping them, but Sam isn’t happy with her dad’s push for stardom. He used to be in a band with her mother, who sadly died in a bicycle accident, and Sam sees his desire to return to the limelight as pathetic. She doesn’t want to sign a contract and go on tour; she wants to go to med school.

As an aside, let me just say that I like to “collect” people who share the same birthday as me (date, not year), and Kiersey Clemons, who plays Sam, does! She really does have a magnificent voice, and she’s incredibly talented as an actress as well. No need for my well wishes, however, as she’s lined up to play Iris opposite Ezra Miller in a Flash movie. She’s well on her way.

Hearts Beat Loud is a small film, zeroed in on Offerman’s Frank as he navigates major life upheaval. While the storyline with Blythe Danner didn’t seem to go much of anywhere, overall this is a movie worth curling up with. If you liked Begin Again, or enjoy films of that sort, you’d probably like this one as well.

Movies: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

My kids were asking for a movie night, and this one was family friendly and streaming (the only two criteria). I vaguely recall reading and like John Bellairs’ book when I was younger, but I don’t remember the book itself in any detail… What, I wonder, does that say about it?

The movie is about Lewis, whose parents have died in a terrible car accident, so he has gone to live with an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Jonathan (played with aplomb by Jack Black) lives in a house as weird as he is, and with a platonic friend Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). I really enjoyed watching these two; they seemed to be having fun, and my nine-year-old son laughed like a loon at all the banter and physical comedy this movie had to offer.

This is, in fact, exactly the kind of movie I would have adored at that age. However, be forewarned that, while my youngest did enjoy it, he was also a bit “creeped out,” as he put it, and we had to take extra care putting him to bed for the night. The creepy stuff includes animated dolls/mannequins, which I must agree is the basis for many a nightmare.

The story itself is fairly linear and goes without any real surprises: at first Lewis thinks Jonathan might be evil, but then he finds out his uncle is simply a warlock. Magic ensues, things go wrong, etc.

The production values are quite fine, and the movie is fun to watch as much for the colors and visuals as for the the silliness of the actors. I’m not sure why audiences didn’t enjoy it (46% on Rotten Tomatoes, though critics gave it 67%). Were they expecting something more sophisticated? It’s a kids’ movie based on a kids’ book, so it came in as exactly what I anticipated—slightly better than I expected, actually, given the ratings.

In short, it’s a solidly middling film, neither amazing nor terrible, just a fair amount of fun. I’d give it three stars out of five and say it’s worth watching with your kids (if you have them, or any you can borrow); otherwise, I’m not sure whether, as an adult, you’d find it worth your while. Maybe for nostalgia value. In any case, that’s a call you’ll have to make yourself.

Movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Voices by: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (screenplay); Phil Lord (story); from characters created by a whole list of people I can’t be bothered to type here
Columbia Pictures/Sony/Marvel, 2018
PG; 117 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

It’s no secret that I’m long over superhero movies. Marvel in particular has been crumbling under its own weight for a while now. A large part of the problem (though there are many) is that these movies have begun to take themselves too seriously. They’re constantly seeking to up the stakes and lay on the drama. Yet the result is the audience becomes numb to the would-be tension. Instead of feeling like stakes are higher, it has come to feel like there are no stakes at all. Everyone comes back, after all. “We can rebuild, rebirth, turn back time; we have the technology.”

But I still enjoy some superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are two of my favorites, and why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Spider-Man: Homecoming was similar, though the need to shoehorn in Stark and tie it all to the Avengers… Ugh. Not everything has to be a crossover, guys. This isn’t fan fiction (though it sure does feel like it these days—except I’ve read better fan fiction than a lot of these scripts).

Okay, but what about this movie? I went in with no real expectations and no particular background knowledge of Spider-Man outside the films I’ve seen (Tobey Maguire, yes; Andrew Garfield, no; Tom Holland, yes) and what my husband sometimes tries to explain to me while my eyes glaze over. I’d heard, for example, that Gwen becomes Spider-Something at some point… That there were multiple universes… Yeah, that’s about it.

Into the Spider-Verse follows the origin story of Miles Morales, one of the many incarnations of Spider-Man. Miles is smart and awkward, new to a private high school where the expectations are higher. Meanwhile, he just wants to do his art (graffiti). While doing just that, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and… You can guess the rest.

One supercollider-that-opens-other-dimensions later, Miles is joined by a number of other Spider-Peeps. He learns the ropes while trying to get everyone back to their respective universes. Then he must destroy the collider to keep the world (or at least NYC) stable.

It’s a straight-forward plot, which I really appreciated. These days, all the plots feel so convoluted as to be nonsense, just a backdrop for character drama. This felt refreshing by comparison.

The animation style, too, was really nice. This is a visually pleasing movie, and it really is like watching a comic book.

Viewers don’t have to know much about Spider-Man to get anything out of this film either. Once again, so nice not to have to watch twenty other films first to understand the story or know the characters.

Of course, there’s the imminent danger that this did well enough that they’ll turn it into a long, complicated series in its own right. But let’s hope not. For once, maybe they could just leave well enough alone and let us have nice things instead of ruining everything in their pursuit of profits.

Sigh.

Things don’t have to be complex to be good. In fact, there’s a tipping point at which they get so elaborate they turn bad. You know, it’s like jewelry, or architecture. There’s a pleasant level of embellishment, but that one extra piece or detail turns it from stylish to tacky in an instant. The Marvel Universe has become just that: tacky. But this movie, over here on its own and minding its own business—it’s chic. Fun. Well worth viewing. It doesn’t stumble under the weight of anything before it, nor does it try too hard to be “important.” It’s just a really good movie. And in a world filled to the brim with superheroes of all sorts, this one somehow manages to stand out like a rare gem.

Movies: Mary Poppins Returns

Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee (screenplay); David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca (story); based on characters created by P.L. Travers
Walt Disney, 2018
PG; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

I really didn’t have any expectations going in. I recall enjoying Mary Poppins when I was young, and we took the kids to the stage play a couple years ago. Still, I wasn’t sure if they’d get anything out of this resurrection of an old character and property.

I needn’t have worried. My children loved this movie, and it was a joy to watch them watch it, especially my youngest. He was so very invested, bouncing in his seat, laughing like a loon. Meanwhile, my 10-year-old daughter kept checking on me to make sure I didn’t cry too much. (I did cry a bit, though, which is very unusual for me.)

Here we have a grown and widowed Michael Banks, raising three children: twins John and Annabel, and young Georgie. Due to their mother having died less than a year before, the twins have taken it upon themselves to grow up quickly and help run the household. They’re no-nonsense… Something Mary Poppins will soon fix.

The titular nanny arrives as the Banks learn they have only five days to pay back a loan to the bank else lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane.

It’s clear the goal was to evoke the feel of the original film in an almost one-to-one ratio of musical numbers and adventures. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is now “Can You Imagine That?”, “Jolly Holiday” becomes “Royal Doulton Music Hall”, “I Love to Laugh” equates to “Turning Turtle”, and “Chim Chim Cheree/Step in Time” has turned into “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” That said, all the charm remains intact (or it did for me, my husband, and family). Instead of a pale imitation, Blunt makes the role her own and Miranda likewise is endearing as earnest lamplighter Jack.

There is also more of a sense of a cohesive story here: the Bankses must save their home. Colin Firth plays the villainous banker intent on claiming the property. I do love Firth, and don’t especially like to think of him as evil, but he does the job with all the aplomb of a typical Disney villain. I’m only sorry he didn’t really get his moment of redemption at the end.

I’m very aware that, having just come out of the cinema, there’s a fair chance I’ll feel differently later as it all sinks in, but on the whole I call this one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Just purely enjoyable. It felt a bit like a gamble to make it, but the result is a delightful win.

Favorite Books on Film

I saw this post on another blog (sorry but I don’t remember which one), and it got me thinking: Which book-to-film translations have I enjoyed? Sure, we all [usually] think the book is better, most likely because there’s a lot you can do with words that is difficult, if not impossible, to film. Inner dialogue, for example. But some books have translated pretty well to the screen anyway.

One I see on many lists—and yes, it’s on mine too—is Pride and Prejudice, in particular the BBC miniseries. Yeah, I love that one, too. Though it took me a while to warm to it because I had a college roommate that watched it over and over again. At that point I was avoiding her and the series, so when I finally did sit down to watching some years later, I found it was quite charming. And I do love Jane Austen.

Another book whose movie I enjoyed is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw the movie first, though, and then felt compelled to read the book, which was wonderful as well. There is a prequel I’d like to read as well, though I always hesitate when an author revisits a scene after a long break. (See: Anne Rice’s most recent vampire novels, which I just could not get into.)

I’ll admit I liked Interview with the Vampire, too. I have no excuse for why except that maybe it came out at a time when I was receptive to Tom Cruise as an overacting blonde and boy does Brad Pitt look pretty in that movie.

1939 — British actress Vivien Leigh on the set of Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell and directed by Victor Fleming. — Image by © Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Gone with the Wind is a favorite movie of mine as well. I used to lay on the couch and watch it whenever I was home sick from school. My freshman year of high school, we had to read the book. So, again, this is a situation in which I’d seen the movie first. And I know the romanticization of the Antebellum South is problematic, but Scarlett is such a vivid character that I can’t help enjoying both the book and film.

Another book/movie combo that makes my list: The Ghost Writer. Robert Harris both wrote the novel and the screenplay, so that probably goes a long way toward the two hanging together well. And you know I can’t say no to Ewan McGregor.

Finally, an oldie but goldie: The Haunting. I mean the 1963 version. I love, love, love Shirley Jackson’s novella “The Haunting of Hill House,” and this movie did it justice. Of course, maybe that’s because my friends and I stayed up late one night to watch it and scared ourselves silly. Fond memories can color one’s perception of how good a book or movie really is, I suppose.

What book adaptations have you enjoyed? Maybe later I’ll post about some terrible ones. I think it can be tricky to capture a book well on film, which is why good screenwriting is so important. Some day I still hope to see St. Peter in Chains make it to the screen . . . If and when it does, let’s hope it turns out well!

WIPjoy #20

20. When your WIP is a movie, what would the credits sequence be like?

I’m going to assume end credits here. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say the book ends on a somber note; it’s based on Hamlet, after all. So there would be a slow fade out, and some deceptively slow, sweet music—or something moody, anyway. But then the rock beat would kick in.

There wouldn’t be outtakes or any of that stuff, but I think we might have a parchment background with some Shakespearean (Elizabethan era) writing? Or the actual names might be in a stylized calligraphy on the parchment? In any case, something that ties back to the source material. Sketches or faux paintings of the main characters in Elizabethan garb that then fades into them in modern clothing or something.

We could also possibly do something where we see Nerissa on the job. (If you read the book if/when it comes out, you’ll see what I mean.) There’s potential for lightheartedness there so that the whole movie doesn’t end on a down note.

Really, though, I don’t see my WIP as film material. Some books are (The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller definitely is), but this one . . . I don’t know. I’m not sold on the idea.

Best of 2016

I’ve started to see the lists popping up online. Even though there is still one month left in 2016, people are ready to call their favorites, from books to movies to television shows. So I thought about what I read and watched this year, and here are a few notables:

Books

The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young. This pseudo-paranormal mystery set in the bayous of Louisiana is both atmospheric and fast-moving. I raced through it and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Not a 2016 release, but I finally got around to this one and, though long and deep, it’s so well written. Was perfect for the long flights to and from New York.

Dark Dawning by Christine Rains. A novella, first in a series, and it sets up just a very interesting world full of shape-shifters and Inuit mythology.

Lorelei’s Lyric by D.B. Sieders. A twist on mermaids/sirens.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A new window into the world of Harry Potter… pre-Potter.

Sing Street. Just really cute, even if it is mostly a bunch of music videos hung on a very sparse plot frame.

Snowden. An interesting perspective on how and why Edward Snowden did what he did.

The Imposter. A documentary about how a French con artist convinced a family in Texas he was their missing son/brother.

Kubo and the Two Strings. More gorgeous work from Laika.

The Nice Guys. Typical Shane Black, so if you like his stuff…

Zootopia. Above and beyond as far as children’s animated features go.

Love & Friendship. A delightful Jane Austen adaptation.

I know there’s a lot I have yet to see (I do have tickets to Rogue One!), but of the things I watched this past year, the above stand out.

Television

The Crown. I was sucked right into this drama about the start of Elizabeth II’s reign and can’t wait for more.

Westworld. I resisted, and do continue to resist on some levels, but I can’t deny that this is a well-written, well-acted, well-produced program. (I feel similarly about Game of Thrones and The Leftovers. Must be an HBO drama thing.)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Everything Doctor Who should be, used to be, and no longer is. In short, a whole lot of absurd fun.

Documentary Now! Fun, though the second season was not as good as the first IMHO.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Probably the single thing I most look forward to each week. (And now on break. *sob*)

I also watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine and am just dabbling in Superstore. Started Designated Survivor and AHS: Roanoke and Timeless and need to get back to those… Television is getting harder to keep up with because there is so much and it’s all dumped in one go instead of airing weekly. But hey, even the weekly stuff piles up on my DVR, sort of like all the books I mean to read that pile up on my nightstand or in my Kindle. The above, then, are just shows that definitely had me hooked over the year.

So what about you? Any favorites this past year? Recommendations? Anything to look forward to in 2017? Let me know in the comments!

‘Tis the Season (for Hallowe’en Movies)

I’m not a gore person. I don’t do movies that involve hacking and lots of blood. But I love a good psychological thriller or dark comedy. Here I’d like to mention a couple lesser-known films that I’ve enjoyed.

mrfrost1. Mister Frost

This gem from 1990 shows Jeff Goldblum just prior to his big Jurassic Park moment. I’ll admit, my best friend and I found it equal parts hilarious and disturbing. Goldblum has some amazing lines, like (to the best of my memory): “Oh, yes, the bodies. I was just finishing burying them as you were walking up.” It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie, but I’d love to watch it again. As I recall, there was something about cake—Goldblum, playing the titular Frost, baked cakes then took pictures of them and dumped them in the trash. But that’s only the start. Once they put him in the psychiatric ward, things gets increasingly sinister. “Soon. Soon you’ll be on my side of the mirror . . .”

2. The Last Supperlastsupper

Perfect for this election season. In this film, a gathering of frustrated liberals decide to turn their dinner parties into murdering sprees so they can rid themselves of rightwing pundits. As with Mister Frost I don’t remember many details, but I do recall the Shonen Knife cover of “Top of the World” being fabulous as it played over the end credits. And I remember liking the movie in general.

You have to take into account that when Mister Frost came out I was 14 and when The Last Supper came out I was 19. It might very well be that, should I go watch these again, I’d find them abysmal. At the very least I’m sure they’re dated. But that’s sort of the fun thing about these kinds of movies, too—special effects aside, being dated only adds to their charm rather than detracting from it.

Do you have any favorite Hallowe’en movies? Oldies but goodies? Have any of you had the joy of watching either of these two movies? If so, I want to hear about it in the comments!

Holiday Movies

Do you have favorites?

I grew up watching The Bishop’s Wife and A Christmas Story pretty much every year. Yet I find when I’m thinking “Christmas movie,” I really want Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

That isn’t to say I don’t love those others. I do try to watch The Bishop’s Wife every year (I adore Cary Grant), and I also still enjoy A Christmas Story, though I’ll admit I’ve reached that point where it’s no longer as funny as it used to be. Still, it’s a source of great quotes.

I also try to watch the musical Scrooge, and also the film version of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott. Those are great, even for someone like me who doesn’t much enjoy Dickens.

But for some reason, when it comes right down to it, the movies I first think of when it’s that time of year are Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

It probably says more about the decade in which I grew up. Stuff like Miami Vice was on TV and these movies made a big impression on me. I didn’t see them in the cinema, of course. But we always had at least one movie channel in our cable package, and my parents considered me pretty mature. They were of that school where they figured so long as I watched with them, so that I could ask any questions and/or they were there to shepherd me through the traumatic experience of an R-rated film, it was probably okay. (Lethal Weapon 2 was the first R movie I saw in the cinema; my dad took me. I was 13.)

I know It’s a Wonderful Life is considered the ultimate Christmas classic by many, but I actually really dislike that film. I can’t even say why, exactly. And yet years later Robert Carradine did this TV movie called Clarence and I loved it. No idea why, can’t remember a thing about it now, but I distinctly recall enjoying it. Again, maybe it’s a sensibility issue. A movie made in 1946 can’t win an 80s kid over the way a TV movie from 1990 can.

But this wouldn’t explain my love for The Bishop’s Wife. Except that I grew up loving Cary Grant and only later, in film school, would I develop a healthy respect for Jimmy Stewart. That must be it because Cary Grant is really the only movie star of that era that I enjoy. I don’t particularly like Bogart, or Cooper, or Burton, or Peck, or any of those. I mean, I liked To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind, but I wouldn’t hunt for more movies just because of those actors. When it comes to Grant, though, if his name is in the billing, I’ll watch it. There are very few actors I can say that about.

Anyway, tonight we’ll be watching Die Hard. I haven’t yet watched any holiday movies this season (just the Charlie Brown cartoon), and I’m thinking I’d still like to get in Bishop’s Wife at some point too. But if I can only squeeze in one Christmas movie, I guess it’s going to be Bruce Willis vs. Alan Rickman. Yippee-ki-yay.